Open Access Research article

Immunologically reactive M. leprae antigens with relevance to diagnosis and vaccine development

Lucas H Sampaio1, Mariane MA Stefani1*, Regiane M Oliveira1, Ana LM Sousa1, Greg C Ireton2, Steven G Reed2 and Malcolm S Duthie2

Author Affiliations

1 Tropical Pathology and Public Health Institute, Federal University of Goiás, Rua 235 esquina com 1a Avenida, Setor Universitário, sala 335, Goiânia, GO, 74605050, Brazil

2 Infectious Disease Research Institute, 1124 Columbia St, Suite 400, Seattle, WA 98104, USA

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BMC Infectious Diseases 2011, 11:26  doi:10.1186/1471-2334-11-26

Published: 26 January 2011



Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae that can manifest a wide variety of immunological and clinical outcomes ranging from potent humoral responses among borderline lepromatous (BL) and lepromatous (LL) patients to strong cellular responses among tuberculoid (TT) and borderline tuberculoid (BT) patients. Until recently, relatively little has been known about the immune responses to individual proteins of M. leprae recognized during leprosy.


The immune reactivity to a panel of 33 M. leprae recombinant proteins was evaluated among leprosy patients and controls from a high endemic area for leprosy (Goiania/GO, Central Brazil). Serum IgG responses were measured by ELISA (45 participants/group) and T cell responses (20 participants/group) were evaluated by IFN-gamma production in 24 hours whole blood cultures with antigen (whole blood assay-WBA). Study groups were newly diagnosed, untreated TT/BT and BL/LL leprosy patients classified by Ridley Jopling criteria and household contacts of BL/LL patients (HHC). Control groups were HIV-1 negative pulmonary tuberculosis patients (TB) and healthy individuals from the same endemic area (EC). In silico predictions indicated the level of identity of M. leprae proteins with homologues in other mycobacteria and the presence of T cell and B cell epitopes.


Despite the prediction that all proteins would be reactive, 16 of 33 (48%) of the single proteins tested were immunogenic (recognized in WBA or ELISA) and seventeen were non-immunogenic (not recognized in either assay). Among the 16 immunogenic proteins, 9 were considered leprosy specific in WBA inducing cell-mediated IFN-gamma secretion from TT/BT patients and HHC. Three of these proteins were also leprosy specific in serology being recognized by serum IgG from LL/BL patients. Seven of the immunogenic proteins were not leprosy specific.


New M. leprae antigens recognized by antibody responses of BL/LL patients and cellular responses of TT/BT leprosy patients were identified. An improved serological diagnostic test for leprosy could be developed by incorporating these IgG-reactive antigens to the current PGL-I based tests. Moreover our data indicate that the WBA is a robust, relatively simple and user friendly format for a T cell based diagnostic test. The field use of these test formats in leprosy endemic countries could contribute to early leprosy diagnosis before the development of deformities and disabilities.