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Clin Microbiol Rev. 1988 Jul;1(3):330-48.


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  • 1Gillis W. Long Hansen's Disease Center, U.S. Public Health Service, Carville, Louisiana 70721.


Leprosy affects over 10 million people in the world. The disease is a model of graded cell-mediated immunity, in this case to the causative organism, Mycobacterium leprae. The clinical manifestations are due to (i) bacterial progression, (ii) immunologic responses of the host, (iii) peripheral nerve damage due to either or both bacterial progression and immunologic responses of the host, and (iv) preventable secondary deformities following nerve damage, which account for most of the stigma of the disease. Treatment modalities are now available to control or minimize the effects of bacterial progression, harmful immunologic responses of the host, peripheral nerve damage, and secondary deformities. Unique biochemical characteristics of M. leprae reside in the cell wall and associated macromolecules. Some of these molecules are potent immunogens in humans, while others constitute the structural integrity of the bacillus. Proteins of M. leprae are currently under intensive investigation as a result of deoxyribonucleic acid cloning of M. leprae genes. Structure-function and antigenic relationships of M. leprae proteins should become available by using recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid procedures coupled with T- and B-cell cloning to advance our understanding of the immunologic reactions encountered in Hansen's disease. Until recently, the study of the immunology of leprosy has been stymied by the lack of immunologically specific M. leprae antigens. The definition of specific antigens and production of recombinant and synthetic immunologic reagents have fostered state-of-the-art research efforts into new immunodiagnostic procedures and development of a leprosy vaccine. Also discussed is progress in understanding of the mechanism(s) underlying the M. leprae-specific immunodeficiency associated with lepromatous leprosy, including the role of suppressor T cells and defective macrophage function. Metabolic studies of M. leprae suggest intact catabolic pathways and energy generation with purine bases and catalase as possible growth factors. Special attention may also need to be given to biophysical parameters for eventual in vitro cultivation. Rapid in vitro systems, using quantitation of bacillary metabolic activity, may soon replace the lengthy mouse footpad test for determining the viability and drug susceptibility of the leprosy bacillus.

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