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Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2001 Mar;163(4):824-8.

Rapid detection of Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection by enumeration of antigen-specific T cells.

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Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine, University of Oxford, John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, United Kingdom.


There is no reliable means of detecting latent M. tuberculosis infection, and even in patients with active tuberculosis, infection is often unconfirmed. We hypothesized that M. tuberculosis antigen-specific T cells might reliably indicate infection. We enumerated peripheral blood-derived interferon gamma (IFN-gamma)-secreting T cells responding to epitopes from ESAT-6, an antigen that is highly specific for M. tuberculosis complex but absent from BCG, in four groups of individuals. Forty-five of 47 patients with bacteriologically confirmed tuberculosis had ESAT-6-specific IFN-gamma-secreting T cells, compared with four of 47 patients with nontuberculous illnesses, indicating that these T cells are an accurate marker of M. tuberculosis infection. This assay thus has a sensitivity of 96% (95% confidence interval [CI] 92-100) for detecting M. tuberculosis infection in this patient population. By comparison, of the 26 patients with tuberculosis who had a diagnostic tuberculin skin test (TST), only 18 (69%) were positive (p = 0.003). In addition, 22 of 26 (85%) TST-positive exposed household contacts had ESAT-6-specific T cells, whereas zero of 26 unexposed BCG-vaccinated subjects responded. This approach enables rapid detection of M. tuberculosis infection in patients with active tuberculosis and in exposed asymptomatic individuals at high risk of latent infection; it also successfully distinguishes between M. tuberculosis infection and BCG vaccination. This capability may facilitate tuberculosis control in nonendemic regions.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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