Host-response-based gene signatures for tuberculosis diagnosis: A systematic comparison of 16 signatures

PLoS Med. 2019 Apr 23;16(4):e1002786. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1002786. eCollection 2019 Apr.


Background: The World Health Organization (WHO) and Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND) have published target product profiles (TPPs) calling for non-sputum-based diagnostic tests for the diagnosis of active tuberculosis (ATB) disease and for predicting the progression from latent tuberculosis infection (LTBI) to ATB. A large number of host-derived blood-based gene-expression biomarkers for diagnosis of patients with ATB have been proposed to date, but none have been implemented in clinical settings. The focus of this study is to directly compare published gene signatures for diagnosis of patients with ATB across a large, diverse list of publicly available gene expression datasets, and evaluate their performance against the WHO/FIND TPPs.

Methods and findings: We searched PubMed, Gene Expression Omnibus (GEO), and ArrayExpress in June 2018. We included all studies irrespective of study design and enrollment criteria. We found 16 gene signatures for the diagnosis of ATB compared to other clinical conditions in PubMed. For each signature, we implemented a classification model as described in the corresponding original publication of the signature. We identified 24 datasets containing 3,083 transcriptome profiles from whole blood or peripheral blood mononuclear cell samples of healthy controls or patients with ATB, LTBI, or other diseases from 14 countries in GEO. Using these datasets, we calculated weighted mean area under the receiver operating characteristic curve (AUROC), specificity at 90% sensitivity, and negative predictive value (NPV) for each gene signature across all datasets. We also compared the diagnostic odds ratio (DOR), heterogeneity in DOR, and false positive rate (FPR) for each signature using bivariate meta-analysis. Across 9 datasets of patients with culture-confirmed diagnosis of ATB, 11 signatures had weighted mean AUROC > 0.8, and 2 signatures had weighted mean AUROC ≤ 0.6. All but 2 signatures had high NPV (>98% at 2% prevalence). Two gene signatures achieved the minimal WHO TPP for a non-sputum-based triage test. When including datasets with clinical diagnosis of ATB, there was minimal reduction in the weighted mean AUROC and specificity of all but 3 signatures compared to when using only culture-confirmed ATB data. Only 4 signatures had homogeneous DOR and lower FPR when datasets with clinical diagnosis of ATB were included; other signatures either had heterogeneous DOR or higher FPR or both. Finally, 7 of 16 gene signatures predicted progression from LTBI to ATB 6 months prior to sputum conversion with positive predictive value > 6% at 2% prevalence. Our analyses may have under- or overestimated the performance of certain ATB diagnostic signatures because our implementation may be different from the published models for those signatures. We re-implemented published models because the exact models were not publicly available.

Conclusions: We found that host-response-based diagnostics could accurately identify patients with ATB and predict individuals with high risk of progression from LTBI to ATB prior to sputum conversion. We found that a higher number of genes in a signature did not increase the accuracy of the signature. Overall, the Sweeney3 signature performed robustly across all comparisons. Our results provide strong evidence for the potential of host-response-based diagnostics in achieving the WHO goal of ending tuberculosis by 2035, and host-response-based diagnostics should be pursued for clinical implementation.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Child
  • Datasets as Topic
  • Disease Progression
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions / genetics
  • Humans
  • Latent Tuberculosis / diagnosis
  • Latent Tuberculosis / genetics
  • Latent Tuberculosis / pathology
  • Middle Aged
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Transcriptome*
  • Tuberculosis / diagnosis*
  • Tuberculosis / genetics*
  • Young Adult


  • Biomarkers