Background: A third of the world's population has latent infection with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and in areas of low endemicity, most cases of active tuberculosis arise as a result of reactivation of latent bacilli. We sought to establish the cellular location of these latent organisms to facilitate their elimination.
Methods: We applied in-situ PCR to sections of macroscopically normal lung tissue from 13 individuals from Ethiopia and 34 from Mexico who had died from causes other than tuberculosis. Sections of lung tissue from six Norwegian individuals (ie, individuals from a non-endemic population) acted as negative controls, and six Ethiopian tuberculosis cases acted as positive controls.
Findings: Control necropsy samples from the Norwegian individuals were all negative by in-situ PCR and conventional PCR, whereas all samples from known Ethiopian tuberculosis cases were positive by both methods. However, in macroscopically normal lung tissue from Ethiopian and Mexican individuals without tuberculous lesions, the in-situ PCR revealed five of 13 and ten of 34 positive individuals, respectively. These results were confirmed by conventional PCR with extracted DNA. Positive cells included alveolar and interstitial macrophages, type II pneumocytes, endothelial cells, and fibroblasts.
Interpretation: M. tuberculosis can persist intracellularly in lung tissue without histological evidence of tuberculous lesions. M. tuberculosis DNA is situated not only in macrophages but also in other non-professional phagocytic cells. These findings contradict the dominant view that latent organisms exist in old classic tuberculous lesions, and have important implications for strategies aimed at the elimination of latent and persistent bacilli.