Marcia Valéria B.S. Martinsae, Mônica Cristina B.S. Limab, Nadia C. Dupprea, Haroldo J. Matosc, John S. Spencerd, Patrick J. Brennand, Euzenir N. Sarnoa, Leila Fonsecae, Geraldo M.B. Pereiraab, Maria Cristina V. Pessolania
There are no reliable means for detecting subclinical mycobacterial infections. The recent sequencing of several mycobacterial genomes has now afforded new opportunities for the development of pathogen-specific diagnostic tests, critical in the context of leprosy and tuberculosis control. In the present study, we applied a multi-parametric flow cytometric analysis that allowed the investigation of T-cell functions in order to define immunological markers that measure previous exposure to mycobacteria. We compared the in vivo response to PPD, the gold standard skin test reagent for measuring previous exposure to Mycobacterium tuberculosis, with in vitro parameters of leukocyte activation in five PPD positive and five PPD negative healthy volunteers. PPD-stimulated peripheral leukocytes expressing CD4, CD69, cutaneous lymphocyte-associated antigen (CLA) and intracellular IFN-γ were enumerated in whole blood and compared with the size of in vivo PPD-induced induration and IFN-γ production levels as measured by ELISA in supernatants of PPD-stimulated peripheral blood mononuclear cells. The reactivity to the tuberculin skin test (TST) was associated with markedly increased frequencies of PPD-responsive activated (CD69+) and IFN-γ-producing CD4+T cells. Detection of PPD-specific IFN-γ producing leukocytes was restricted to CD4+T cells and a subset of these cells was shown to express the skin homing molecule CLA. Multiple linear regression modeling of responses to PPD showed the highest association between skin test indurations and frequencies of PPD-responsive IFN-γ-producing CD4+CD69+ T cells. Our data show that the in vitro enumeration of antigen-specific IFN-γ-producing CD4+ T cells can provide an alternative to the in vivo tuberculin test for the detection of latent Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection. Moreover, the measurement of these immunological parameters can be useful for the screening of new specific antigens defined by the genome sequence allowing selection of the best candidates for new diagnostics (including new skin tests), and vaccines for leprosy and tuberculosis.