Pyrazinamide is one of the most important drugs in the treatment of latent Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection. The emergence of strains resistant to pyrazinamide represents an important public health problem, as both first- and second-line treatment regimens include pyrazinamide. The accepted mechanism of action states that after the conversion of pyrazinamide into pyrazinoic acid by the bacterial pyrazinamidase enzyme, the drug is expelled from the bacteria by an efflux pump. The pyrazinoic acid is protonated in the extracellular environment and then re-enters the mycobacterium, releasing the proton and causing a lethal disruption of the membrane. Although it has been shown that mutations causing significant loss of pyrazinamidase activity significantly contribute to pyrazinamide resistance, the mechanism of resistance is not completely understood. The pyrazinoic acid efflux rate may depend on multiple factors, including pyrazinamidase activity, intracellular pyrazinamidase concentration, and the efficiency of the efflux pump. Whilst the importance of the pyrazinoic acid efflux rate to the susceptibility to pyrazinamide is recognized, its quantitative effect remains unknown. Thirty-four M. tuberculosis clinical isolates and a Mycobacterium smegmatis strain (naturally resistant to PZA) were selected based on their susceptibility to pyrazinamide, as measured by Bactec 460TB and the Wayne method. For each isolate, the initial velocity at which pyrazinoic acid is released from the bacteria and the initial velocity at which pyrazinamide enters the bacteria were estimated. The data indicated that pyrazinoic acid efflux rates for pyrazinamide-susceptible M. tuberculosis strains fell within a specific range, and M. tuberculosis strains with a pyrazinoic acid efflux rate below this range appeared to be resistant. This finding contrasts with the high pyrazinoic acid efflux rate for M. smegmatis, which is innately resistant to pyrazinamide: its pyrazinoic acid efflux rate was found to be 900 fold higher than the average efflux rate for M. tuberculosis strains. No significant variability was observed in the pyrazinamide flux rate. The pyrazinoic acid efflux rate explained 61% of the variability in Bactec pyrazinamide susceptibility, 24% of Wayne activity, and 51% of the Bactec 460TB growth index. In contrast, pyrazinamidase activity accounted for only 27% of the Bactec pyrazinamide susceptibility. This finding suggests that mechanisms other than pncA mutations (reduction of pyrazinamidase activity) are also implicated in pyrazinamide resistance, and that pyrazinoic acid efflux rate acts as a better proxy for pyrazinamide resistance than the presence of pncA mutations. This is relevant to the design of molecular diagnostics for pyrazinamide susceptibility, which currently rely on pncA gene mutation detection.
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