BACKGROUND: A serological test that could help to diagnose tuberculosis, especially smear negative disease, would contribute to patient management. METHODS: Levels of antibody to distinct antigens of Mycobacterium tuberculosis were assessed for their value in the diagnosis and management of pulmonary tuberculosis. Serum was taken from 52 patients who were smear positive, from 27 patients who were smear negative but with evidence of active tuberculosis (sputum culture positive in 16, response to antituberculosis chemotherapy in 11), from 11 patients with old healed tuberculosis (pre-antibiotic era), and from 39 healthy subjects vaccinated with BCG. RESULTS: In smear positive tuberculosis an enzyme linked immunosorbent assay using a single 38 kDa antigen gave a diagnostic sensitivity of 80% with a 100% specificity. In smear negative pulmonary tuberculosis, however, combination of the 19 kDa antigen, lipoarabinomannan (ML 34 epitope), and hsp 65 (TB 78 epitope) was needed to achieve a sensitivity of 64% with a specificity of 95%. Recurrent and extensive radiographic disease with a poor prognosis was associated with high anti-38 kDa and low anti-14 kDa antibody levels in patients with active disease. Patients with less pulmonary cavitation had high anti-19 kDa titres. Bacteriological relapse during treatment was indicated by a rise in anti-14 kDa (TB68 epitope) antibodies. Four patients with non-tuberculous mycobacterial infection showed no anti-38 kDa antibody. CONCLUSION: Antigen or epitope specific serology may help in the diagnosis, assessment of prognosis, and monitoring of chemotherapy in patients with pulmonary tuberculosis.
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