Immunological diagnosis of tuberculosis: problems and strategies for success

Henrique Couto Teixeira Clarice Abramo Martin Emilio Munk About the authors

Tuberculosis remains a serious social and public health problem, affecting millions of people annually. The bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine, used prophylactically, does not impede the progression of the disease, which usually manifests as decreased cellular immunity. Early diagnosis, together with polychemotherapy, can control the dissemination of the tuberculosis infection. The current diagnostic methods present certain problems. Such problems include the low sensitivity of sputum smear microscopy, the fact that performing microbiological cultures is quite time-consuming, and the low specificity of the skin test with the purified protein derivative of M. tuberculosis. New diagnostic methods, which use specific antigens such as the early secreted antigenic target 6-kDa and culture filtrate protein 10kDa, are being evaluated. The genes that encode these antigens are located in the DNA region of difference 1 of M. tuberculosis, M. africanum and M. bovis. However, they are absent from the M. bovis (BCG) and from most environmental mycobacteria. Diagnostic methods such as QuantiFERON-TB® and T SPOT.TB®, which are based on the production of interferon-gamma by T lymphocytes, in response to those antigens, are being tested and have been found to outstrip the purified protein derivative skin test in the following characteristics: greater sensitivity; lower cross-reactivity due to BCG vaccination or infection with environmental mycobacteria; and execution time. The introduction of diagnostic methods that are more specific and sensitive, together with gaining a better understanding of the molecular and cellular mechanisms that regulate the parasite-host interaction, can increase the efficiency of strategies devised to combat tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis; Mycobacterium tuberculosis; Diagnosis; Antigens; bacterial/ESAT-6 protein; Immunity


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