European badgers (Meles meles) are considered to be an important reservoir of infection for Mycobacterium bovis and are implicated in the transmission of tuberculosis to cattle in Ireland and Great Britain. Accurate tests are required for tuberculosis surveillance in badger populations and to provide a basis for the development of strategies, including vaccination, to reduce the incidence of the infection. In this study, we have developed an endobronchial M. bovis infection model in badgers in which we measured cell-mediated immune and serological responses for up to 24 weeks post-infection. Groups of badgers were subjected to necropsy at 6-week intervals and the gross lesion severity status compared with immune responses measured in blood samples taken throughout the course of the study. The panel of antigens included bovine and avian tuberculins (PPD) as well as single antigens, ESAT-6, CFP-10, MPB70, Rv3019c, Rv3873, Rv3878 and Rv3879, all known to be recognised by the immune system in other animal models of tuberculosis infection. Our results demonstrated that M. bovis infected badgers responded to specific antigens as early as 6 weeks post-infection, consistent with the presence of visible lesions. The data also revealed unique patterns of antigen recognition with high levels of PBMC proliferation in the presence of CFP-10 but low proliferation levels with ESAT-6. Using a multi-antigen print immunoassay (MAPIA), we were able to confirm that MPB83 is the dominant antigen recognised by serum antibodies in infected badgers.
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