This study extends our previous research employing serum CFP-10pep assays to diagnose TB in adults [18, 22, 23], indicating that it can effectively diagnose TB in HIV-infected and HIV-uninfected infants, including unconfirmed TB cases missed by sputum-based methods. Our data also suggests its potential utility for diagnosis of nascent TB cases and monitoring treatment responses.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that non-sputum biomarker tests have sensitivities ≥ 66% for children with intrathoracic confirmed TB cases to match Xpert MTB/RIF sensitivity . CFP-10pep demonstrated 100% (95% CI, 54–100%) and 81% (95% CI, 69–90%) sensitivity for confirmed and unconfirmed TB and unlike most other TB diagnostics did not differ by HIV status, in agreement with previous results with adult TB cases [18, 22, 26]. Serum CFP-10pep signal was detected in most unconfirmed TB cases (> 80%; 51/63), and all (5/5) extrapulmonary TB cases, including TB lymphadenitis and TB meningitis cases missed by respiratory sampling.
Serum CFP-10pep exhibited 95% overall specificity (95% CI 92–97%), approaching the 98% specificity threshold recommended by the WHO, but varied among unlikely TB subgroups, ranging from 85.7 to 88.6% in non-tuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) and latent TB infection subgroups and from 97.8 to 100% in subgroups without and with other disease (Table 4). The two false positives NTM CFP-10pep results matched a Mycobacterium kansasii infection, which could express a CFP-10 ortholog, and a Mycobacterium avium and bacterial/fungal co-infection. Most CFP-10pep false positives in the latent TB subgroup (4 of 5) were detected 6 to 60 weeks before a positive TST and could indicate nascent Mtb infections that subsequently resolved to latent TB infections. Notably, most unlikely TB cases with CFP-10pep positive serum (73%) met at least one criterion for unconfirmed TB diagnosis, suggesting that some could have had subclinical disease. CFP-10pep signal might thus identify individuals who might benefit from anti-TB intervention, particularly in populations where latent TB cases do not routinely receive anti-TB treatment.
Delayed anti-TB treatment initiation, especially for children with HIV/TB co-infections or disseminated TB (including TB meningitis), may result in irreversible damage or death . Serum CFP-10pep was detected up to 60 weeks before TB diagnosis, and identified TB with 77% sensitivity 24 weeks prior to TB-diagnosis, with detection rates increasing as sample collection times approached approach TB diagnosis. Most positive samples were obtained from HIV-infected children who were analyzed more frequently and might exhibit greater antigenemia due to reduced Mtb containment, but the utility of CFP-10 pep as a biomarker for initial Mtb infection or nascent TB deserves further study.
Current treatment guidelines indicate that drug susceptible TB cases should receive 6–9 months of anti-TB therapy, but treatment responses may vary with age, immune function, infection site, and drug resistance . Overtreatment can increase adverse events, while inadequate treatment can promote TB recurrence and drug resistance. Rapid monitoring assays are needed to address these issues, but current microbiologic and immunologic assays lack required speed, sensitivity, and/or specificity, while Xpert MTB/RIF cannot distinguish live and dead mycobacteria, limiting its utility for treatment monitoring . CFP-10pep detection rates and concentrations decreased after anti-TB treatment initiation in TB cases with clinical responses, suggesting CFP-10pep may serve as a biomarker of treatment response. Serum CFP-10pep evaluation would be particularly beneficial for groups, including infants, where sputum-derived results for diagnosis and treatment evaluation are rarely available.
This study has several limitations. First, it used cryopreserved serum from a study not designed to evaluate TB diagnostics. However, all suspected TB cases underwent extensive evaluation that allowed post-hoc assignment of current TB classifications, and longitudinal assessment pre- and post-TB evaluation. Serum samples were stored at − 80 °C for 9 to 13 years prior to CFP-10pep assay analysis. We have previously reported that CFP-10pep signal does not markedly decrease after 30 days storage at − 80 °C (90.7 ± 0.6% recovery) [ 23]. We do not, however, have data for the effect of long-term storage, which might allow CFP-10 degradation or modification to attenuate CFP-10pep detection, and underestimate the diagnostic sensitivity of the CFP-10pep assay.
Second, our study exclusion criteria may have introduced bias affecting our sensitivity and specificity estimates. Most differences between the excluded and analyzed groups were minor (Table S1) but analyzed children were more likely to have been breast-fed, had less severe HIV and CD4 classifications, and had a higher overall death rate without prior TB diagnosis, although the fraction of HIV-infected children was larger in the analyzed versus excluded population. HIV-uninfected children may have preferentially excluded for reduced sample availability, since they had fewer study visits than HIV-infected children after the intervention period (24 weeks vs 12 weeks) and thus fewer visits at which serum could be drawn and archived for subsequent analysis. Excluded HIV-uninfected children may also have been healthier overall and thus have had fewer serum samples collected overall. Notably, though, TB diagnosis frequency was higher in the analyzed versus the excluded cohort for both the HIV-infected and HIV-uninfected children.
Third, the analyzed cohort contained relatively few TB cases, most of which were diagnosed as unconfirmed TB (92.3%), reducing its ability to provide narrow confidence intervals for diagnostic sensitivity estimates, particularly for subgroup analyses. Several factors could explain the scarcity of confirmed TB cases. Infants and young children with TB frequently have paucibacillary TB and are difficult to diagnose by microbiologic methods. Our analysis cohort was also drawn from a study that employed active case finding, which can diagnose TB earlier than passive screening, often before such cases have positive microbiologic test results . Our exclusion criteria did not markedly affect confirmed TB case frequency in our analyzed study population, however, since the frequency of such cases was similar in the overall group and our analyzed cohort (1.9% vs. 1.6%).
Forth, this study cannot compare serum CFP-10pep results to molecular methods (e.g., Xpert) that were not available during the initial study. However, Xpert MTB/RIF and Xpert MTB/RIF Ultra are not superior to Mtb culture for pediatric TB diagnosis [10, 30].Serum CFP-10pep also had similar sensitivity for all TB manifestations, including HIV/TB co-infection and extrapulmonary TB, in contrast to Xpert MTB/RIF which exhibits reduced sensitivity for these cases, although direct comparisons are still required to validate this difference.
Fifth, most children did not have serum available at their initial TB diagnosis or most of their P1041 study visits. We therefore estimated the diagnostic sensitivity of serum CFP-10pep by evaluating its detection rate in sera collected within ± 24 weeks of TB diagnosis (± 1 HIV-uninfected cohort post-intervention study visit) to increase the number of TB cases with available sample. However, this approach is expected to underestimate diagnostic sensitivity, by evaluating some samples collected before TB development and others collected after anti-TB treatment responses. Similarly, the specificity estimate required all samples be CFP-10-negative and likely underestimate the specificity that would be obtained using a single sample. The lack of comprehensive serum samples at all study visits also required that evaluation of CFP-10pep sensitivity, and CFP-10pep decreases following anti-TB treatment, employ aggregate data from all cases instead of sequential data from the same cases. However, we are not aware of any other study with longitudinal samples and diagnostic information in a similar at-risk TB population that would allow such analyses.
Finally, the serum CFP-10pep assay described in this study utilizes MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry for its readout, which may constrain its utility in resource limited settings. Serum CFP-10pep analysis approximates or exceeds the sensitivity and specificity requirements of the WHO target product profile for non-sputum-based TB diagnostics, but does not address end-user, cost, speed, or infrastructure requirements of this profile in its current incarnation. Current research focused on the development of less expensive and complicated portable mass spectrometers could allow assays to be performed in settings lacking extensive infrastructure or highly trained personnel. Alternately, central laboratory networks similar to those developed to allow Xpert MTB/RIF analyses in high endemic TB regions could increase access, particularly if simple on-site sample processing was employed to reduce shipping constraints.
This study evaluated diagnostic performance in a population of HIV-exposed infants born in a region with high TB incidence, who were therefore at high-risk for Mtb infection, rapid TB disease progression, and re-infection. It is not clear if this may have affected the diagnostic performance of our assay. Our data suggest that HIV-infection status did not markedly affect assay sensitivity and specificity, although the number of TB cases was too small to permit accurate evaluation of any such difference. It is also unclear if the cohort exclusion criteria, which disproportionally excluded HIV-uninfected children while increasing the relative percentage of TB cases independent of HIV status, introduced a bias for sicker children that may have increased the apparent sensitivity of our assay.
However, despite the listed concerns about factors that could increase or decrease assay sensitivity, our assay data indicate that serum CFP-10pep detection has robust diagnostic sensitivity for TB in very young children, including paucibacillary and early TB cases missed by microbiologic assays, and has robust specificity to exclude at-risk children without TB, including children with latent TB infection. Given the ability of this assay to address these unmet diagnostic needs, future studies are warranted to refine the diagnostic performance of this assay in additional cohorts that address these concerns.