Tuberculosis continues to be a worldwide health problem for both humans and animals. The development of improved vaccines and diagnostic tests requires detailed understanding of the immune responses generated and the antigens recognized during the disease. This study examined the T-cell response which develops in cattle experimentally infected with Mycobacterium bovis. The first significant T-cell response was found 3 weeks after the onset of infection and was characterized by a pronounced gamma interferon (IFN-gamma) response from peripheral blood mononuclear cells directed to antigens in culture filtrates. Short-term culture filtrate (ST-CF) was separated into molecular mass fractions and screened for recognition by T cells from experimentally infected and field cases of bovine tuberculosis. Cattle in the early stages of experimental infection were characterized by strong IFN-gamma responses directed predominantly toward the lowest-mass (<10-kDa) fraction of ST-CF, but cattle in later stages of experimental infection (16 weeks postinfection) exhibited a broader recognition of antigens of various molecular masses. Field cases of bovine tuberculosis, in comparison, preferentially recognized low-mass antigens, characteristic of animals in the early stages of infection. The major T-cell target for this dominant IFN-gamma response was found to be the secreted antigen ESAT-6. This antigen was recognized strongly by the majority of field cases of bovine tuberculosis tested. As ESAT-6 is unique to pathogenic mycobacterial species, our study suggests that ESAT-6 is an antigen with major potential for vaccination against and specific diagnosis of bovine tuberculosis
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