Elevated serum antibody responses to synthetic mycobacterial lipid antigens among UK farmers: an indication of exposure to environmental mycobacteria?

Alison Jones, Carys A. Davies, Samuel Fitch, Juma'a R. Al Dulayymi, Christopher D. Gwenin, James Gibbons, A. Prysor Williams, Mark S. Baird*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: mycobacterial cells contain complex mixtures of mycolic acid esters. These can be used as antigens recognised by antibodies in the serum of individuals with active tuberculosis, caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis. In high burden populations, a significant number of false positives are observed; possibly these antigens are also recognised by antibodies generated by other mycobacterial infections, particularly ubiquitous ‘environmental mycobacteria’. This suggests similar responses may be observed in a low burden TB population, particularly in groups regularly exposed to mycobacteria. Methods: ELISA using single synthetic trehalose mycolates corresponding to major classes in many mycobacteria was used to detect antibodies in serum of individuals with no known mycobacterial infection, comprising farmers, abattoir workers, and rural and urban populations. Results: serum from four Welsh or Scottish cohorts showed lower (with some antigens significantly lower) median responses than those reported for TB negatives from high-burden TB populations, and significantly lower responses than those with active TB. A small fraction, particularly older farmers, showed strong responses. A second study examined BCG vaccinated and non-vaccinated farmers and non-farmers. Farmers gave significantly higher median responses than non-farmers with three of five antigens, while there was no significant difference between vaccinated or non-vaccinated for either farmer or non-farmer groups. Conclusions: this initial study shows that serodiagnosis with mycobacterial lipid antigens can detect antibodies in a population sub-group that is significantly exposed to mycobacteria, in an assay that is not interfered with by vaccination. Given the links between mycobacterial exposure and a range of immune system diseases, further understanding such responses may provide a new opportunity for monitoring public health and directing treatment.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)213-221
Number of pages9
JournalRSC Medicinal Chemistry
Issue number2
Early online date26 Nov 2020
Publication statusPublished - 4 Mar 2021
Externally publishedYes


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