Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2011 Apr 5; 108(14):5730-5
Kerry A. Millington, Sarah M. Fortune, Jeffrey Low, Alejandra Garces, Suzanne M. Hingley- Wilson, Melissa Wickremasinghe, Onn M. Kon, and Ajit Lalvania
The 6-kDa early secretory antigenic target of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (ESAT-6) and the 10- kDa culture filtrate antigen (CFP-10), encoded in region of difference 1 (RD1) and secreted by the ESAT-6 system 1 (Esx-1) secretion system, are the most immunodominant and highly M. tuberculosis (MTB)-specific antigens. These attributes are responsible for their primary importance in tuberculosis (TB) immunodiagnosis and vaccine development. Rv3615c [Esx-1 substrate protein C (EspC)], encoded outside RD1, is similar in size and sequence homology to CFP-10 and ESAT-6, suggesting it might be a target of cellular immunity in TB. Using ex vivo enzyme-linked immunospot- and flow cytometry-based cytokine-secretion assay, we comprehensively assessed cellular immune responses to EspC in patients with active TB, latently infected persons, and uninfected bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG)-vaccinated controls. EspC was at least as immunodominant as ESAT-6 and CFP-10 in both active and latent TB infection. EspC contained broadly recognized CD4(+) and CD8(+) epitopes, inducing a predominantly CD4(+) T-cell response that comprised functional T-cell subsets secreting both IFN-gamma and IL-2 as well as functional T-cell subsets secreting only IFN-gamma. Surprisingly, T-cell responses to EspC were as highly specific (93%) for MTB infection as responses to ESAT-6 and CFP-10, with only 2 of 27 BCG-vaccinated controls responding to each antigen. Using quantitative proteomics and metabolically labeled mutant and genetically complemented MTB strains, we identified the mechanism of the specificity of anti-EspC immunity as the Esx-1 dependence of EspC secretion. The high immunodominance of EspC, equivalent to that of ESAT-6 and CFP-10, makes it a TB vaccine candidate, and its high specificity confers strong potential for T-cell-based immunodiagnosis.