Correlation of mycobacterium tuberculosis specific and non-specific quantitative Th1 T-cell responses with bacillary load in a high burden setting

BACKGROUND: Measures of bacillary load in patients with tuberculosis (TB) may be useful for predicting and monitoring response to treatment. The relationship between quantitative T-cell responses and mycobacterial load remains unclear. We hypothesised that, in a HIV-prevalent high burden setting, the magnitude of mycobacterial antigen-specific and non-specific T-cell IFN-γ responses would correlate with (a) bacterial load and (b) culture conversion in patients undergoing treatment. METHODS: We compared baseline (n = 147), 2 (n = 35) and 6 month (n = 13) purified-protein-derivative (PPD) and RD1-specific (TSPOT.TB and QFT-GIT) blood RD1-specific (TSPOT.TB; QFT-GIT) responses with associates of sputum bacillary load in patients with culture-confirmed TB in Cape Town, South Africa. RESULTS: IFN-γ responses were not associated with liquid culture time-to-positivity, smear-grade, Xpert MTB/RIF-generated cycle threshold values or the presence of cavities on the chest radiograph in patients with culture-confirmed TB and irrespective of HIV-status. 2-month IGRA conversion rates (positive-to-negative) were negligible [<11% for TSPOT.TB (3/28) and QFT-GIT (1/29)] and lower compared to culture [60% (21/35); p<0.01]. CONCLUSIONS: In a high burden HIV-prevalent setting T-cell IFN-γ responses to M. tuberculosis- specific and non-specific antigens do not correlate with bacillary load, including Xpert MTB/RIF-generated C T values, and are therefore poorly suited for monitoring treatment and prognostication.