Interferon gamma release assays: principles and practice

Enferm Infecc Microbiol Clin. 2010 Apr;28(4):245-52. doi: 10.1016/j.eimc.2009.05.012. Epub 2009 Sep 24.


The last decade has witnessed significant advances in mycobacterial genomics and cellular research which have resulted in the development of two new blood tests, the enzyme-linked immunospot assay (ELISpot) (TSPOT.TB, Oxford Immunotec, Oxford, UK) and the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) (QuantiFERON-TB Gold In-Tube, Cellestis, Carnegie, Australia). These tests, which are collectively known as interferon gamma release assays (IGRAs), detect latent tuberculosis infection (LTBI) by measuring interferon (IFN)-gamma release in response to antigens present in Mycobacterium tuberculosis, but not bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine and most nontuberculous mycobacteria. This is done through enumeration of IFN-gamma-secreting T cells (ELISpot) or by measurement of IFN-gamma concentration (ELISA). The evidence base for these tests has expanded rapidly and now demonstrates that IGRAs are more specific than the tuberculin skin test (TST) as they are not confounded by previous BCG vaccination. In addition, with active tuberculosis (TB) as a surrogate for LTBI, it appears that the ELISA has a similar sensitivity to the TST, whereas the ELISpot is more sensitive. Using degree of exposure to TB as a surrogate for LTBI, both assays correlate at least as well with TB exposure as the TST. Recent longitudinal data have now demonstrated the prognostic power of positive IGRA results in recent contacts for the subsequent progression to active TB. Deployment of IGRAs, driven by new guidelines internationally, will impact on clinical practice in several ways. Their high specificity means that BCG-vaccinated individuals with a false-positive TST will not receive unnecessary preventive treatment, whereas improved sensitivity in individuals with weakened cellular immunity at highest risk of progressing to active TB (for example HIV-positive individuals) enables more reliable targeted testing and treatment of these vulnerable groups. The role of IGRAs in active TB is less clear but they may be useful as adjunctive tests in the diagnostic work-up of an individual with suspected TB. Finally, recent developments and future directions in IGRA development are reviewed.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Antigens, Bacterial / analysis*
  • Antigens, Bacterial / immunology
  • Autoimmune Diseases / complications
  • Autoimmune Diseases / immunology
  • BCG Vaccine
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Disease Progression
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay*
  • Forecasting
  • Health Policy
  • Humans
  • Immunocompetence
  • Immunocompromised Host
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / pharmacology
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / therapeutic use
  • Interferon-gamma / metabolism*
  • Latent Tuberculosis / diagnosis*
  • Mycobacterium bovis / immunology
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis / immunology*
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Public Health
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Species Specificity
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes / metabolism*
  • Tuberculin Test


  • Antigens, Bacterial
  • BCG Vaccine
  • Immunosuppressive Agents
  • Interferon-gamma