British Leprosy Relief Association
Serum samples from patients with mycobacterial infections cross-react with HIV structural proteins Gp41, p55 and p18
aHIV/AIDS UNIT & Clinical Division, National JALMA Institute for Leprosy and Other Mycobacterial Diseases (Indian Council of Medical Research), Tajganj, Agra 282001, India
Correspondence to: T. Hussain (Tel: +91 562 2331751-4, ext. 287; Fax: +91 562 2331755; e-mail: tahziba˙email@example.com)
Infection with Mycobacterium leprae is associated with a high frequency of false positive results in a variety of serological assays. Our studies have found cross-reactivity to HIV structural proteins in serum samples from leprosy patients, irrespective of the type of disease, treatment duration, age and gender and from a few patients with active TB disease.
Western blot (WB) analysis revealed that sera from HIV negative leprosy patients across the spectrum showed high reactivity with p18, Gp41 and p55 and lower reactivity with other HIV proteins. The reactivity appeared to be specific; western blot-positive samples were negative in ELISA and in several rapid tests for HIV. Cross-reactivity was not found in sera from patients with leishmaniasis or from normal healthy individuals.
None of the WB reactive leprosy patients seroconverted to HIV positivity within 6 months to 1 year after Western blot testing. BLAST analysis revealed that envelope antigens of HIV (Gp41, Gp120 and Gp160) contained amino acid sequences similar to M. leprae ML0470, putative integral membrane protein, Rv0740, mmpL9 (M. tuberculosis). Core (gag) antigens (p18) had similarities to ML0406, but polymerase antigens (p52) had similarities to PE_PGRS (M. tuberculosis, H37Rv). Nucleotide sequence analysis, on the other hand, did not reveal any significant homology between M. leprae or M. tuberculosis and HIV.
The occurrence of these high false-positive rates in M. leprae-infected individuals suggests a possible complication of serodiagnosis of HIV in regions where mycobacterial infections are endemic. There is a need for caution in reporting HIV infection among leprosy patients. Our observations emphasise the value of the various rapid assay kits for HIV, where this false positivity is not observed.