Background and objectives: The authors have previously shown that complement-dependent treponemicidal antibody measured by the "washed-killing" assay is directed exclusively against surface-exposed targets on Treponema pallidum, presumably the Treponema pallidum rare outer membrane proteins detected by freeze-fracture electron microscopy.
Goal of this study: Because immune mechanisms against Treponema pallidum rare outer membrane proteins are likely to be central to a protective host response, it was examined whether a relationship could be established between treponemicidal levels as measured by the "washed-killing" assay and host immunity in experimental syphilis.
Study design: Three groups of Treponema pallidum-infected rabbits were treated curatively with penicillin at 9 days, 30 days, and 6 months post-infection to generate animals with varying degrees of immunity to challenge re-infection. The level of complement-dependent treponemicidal activity in sera obtained before infection (basal) and before intradermal challenge was determined by the "washed-killing" assay and compared with that detected using conventional in vitro immobilization.
Results: Using the "washed-killing" assay, a close quantitative correlation as measured by a treponemal immobilizing endpoint titer was demonstrable between prechallenge treponemicidal antibody and the status of immunity to re-infection. Sera from rabbits completely susceptible to symptomatic and disseminated asymptomatic re-infection lacked treponemicidal antibody. Sera from challenged rabbits with a relatively low degree of immunity to symptomatic disease showed endpoints of < or = 4. Rabbits with a relatively high degree of immunity to symptomatic reinfection and resistant to disseminated disease had endpoints that ranged from 6 to 96. Rabbits completely resistant to challenge exhibited endpoints ranging from 96 to 128.
Conclusion: Treponemicidal antibody measured by the "washed-killing" assay correlated closely with the status of immunity in experimental rabbit syphilis. Thus, antibody measured by this assay may be directed against key protective Treponema pallidum surface immunogens.