Formaldehyde treatment of proteins enhances proteolytic degradation by the endo-lysosomal protease cathepsin S

Michiels, Thomas J. M., et al. “Formaldehyde Treatment of Proteins Enhances Proteolytic Degradation by the Endo-Lysosomal Protease Cathepsin S.” Scientific Reports, vol. 10, no. 1, 2020, doi:10.1038/s41598-020-68248-z.


Enzymatic degradation of protein antigens by endo-lysosomal proteases in antigen-presenting cells is crucial for achieving cellular immunity. Structural changes caused by vaccine production process steps, such as formaldehyde inactivation, could affect the sensitivity of the antigen to lysosomal proteases. The aim of this study was to assess the effect of the formaldehyde detoxification process on the enzymatic proteolysis of antigens by studying model proteins. Bovine serum albumin, β-lactoglobulin A and cytochrome c were treated with various concentrations of isotopically labelled formaldehyde and glycine, and subjected to proteolytic digestion by cathepsin S, an important endo-lysosomal endoprotease. Degradation products were analysed by mass spectrometry and size exclusion chromatography. The most abundant modification sites were identified by their characteristic MS doublets. Unexpectedly, all studied proteins showed faster proteolytic degradation upon treatment with higher formaldehyde concentrations. This effect was observed both in the absence and presence of glycine, an often-used excipient during inactivation to prevent intermolecular crosslinking. Overall, subjecting proteins to formaldehyde or formaldehyde/glycine treatment results in changes in proteolysis rates, leading to an enhanced degradation speed. This accelerated degradation could have consequences for the immunogenicity and the efficacy of vaccine products containing formaldehyde-inactivated antigens.