Rationale: The immunologic events surrounding primary Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection and development of tuberculosis remain controversial. Young children who develop tuberculosis do so quickly after first exposure, thus permitting study of immune response to primary infection and disease. We hypothesized that M. tuberculosis-specific CD8(+) T cells are generated in response to high bacillary loads occurring during tuberculosis.
Objectives: To determine if M. tuberculosis-specific T cells are generated among healthy children exposed to M. tuberculosis and children with tuberculosis.
Methods: Enzyme-linked immunosorbent spot assays were used to measure IFN-γ production in response to M. tuberculosis-specific proteins ESAT-6/CFP-10 by peripheral blood mononuclear cells and CD8(+) T cells isolated from Ugandan children hospitalized with tuberculosis (n = 96) or healthy tuberculosis contacts (n = 62).
Measurements and main results: The proportion of positive CD8(+) T-cell assays and magnitude of CD8(+) T-cell responses were significantly greater among young (<5 yr) tuberculosis cases compared with young contacts (P = 0.02, Fisher exact test, P = 0.01, Wilcoxon rank-sum, respectively). M. tuberculosis-specific T-cell responses measured in peripheral blood mononuclear cells were equivalent between groups.
Conclusions: Among young children, M. tuberculosis-specific CD8(+) T cells develop in response to high bacillary loads, as occurs during tuberculosis, and are unlikely to be found after M. tuberculosis exposure. T-cell responses measured in peripheral blood mononuclear cells are generated after M. tuberculosis exposure alone, and thus cannot distinguish exposure from disease. In young children, IFN-γ-producing M. tuberculosis-specific CD8(+) T cells provide an immunologic signature of primary M. tuberculosis infection resulting in disease.