Application of a whole blood mycobacterial growth inhibition assay to study immunity against Mycobacterium tuberculosis in a high tuberculosis burden population

PLoS One. 2017 Sep 8;12(9):e0184563. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0184563. eCollection 2017.


The determinants of immunological protection against Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M.tb) infection in humans are not known. Mycobacterial growth inhibition assays have potential utility as in vitro surrogates of in vivo immunological control of M.tb. We evaluated a whole blood growth inhibition assay in a setting with high burden of TB and aimed to identify immune responses that correlate with control of mycobacterial growth. We hypothesized that individuals with underlying M.tb infection will exhibit greater M.tb growth inhibition than uninfected individuals and that children aged 4 to 12 years, an age during which TB incidence is curiously low, will also exhibit greater M.tb growth inhibition than adolescents or adults. Neither M.tb infection status, age of the study participants, nor M.tb strain was associated with differential control of mycobacterial growth. Abundance and function of innate or T cell responses were also not associated with mycobacterial growth. Our data suggest that this assay does not provide a useful measure of age-associated differential host control of M.tb infection in a high TB burden setting. We propose that universally high levels of mycobacterial sensitization (through environmental non-tuberculous mycobacteria and/or universal BCG vaccination) in persons from high TB burden settings may impart broad inhibition of mycobacterial growth, irrespective of M.tb infection status. This sensitization may mask the augmentative effects of mycobacterial sensitization on M.tb growth inhibition that is typical in low burden settings.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Antigens, Bacterial / immunology
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Middle Aged
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis / immunology*
  • South Africa / epidemiology
  • T-Cell Antigen Receptor Specificity / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • Tuberculosis / epidemiology
  • Tuberculosis / immunology*
  • Tuberculosis / microbiology*
  • Young Adult


  • Antigens, Bacterial
  • Cytokines