Journal of clinical microbiology

Evaluation of a Treponema pallidum western immunoblot assay as a confirmatory test for syphilis.

PMID 1734042


Tests for the detection of antibodies to Treponema pallidum are recommended for the confirmation of reactive nontreponemal test results and the accurate diagnosis of syphilis. The present-day use of Western blot (immunoblot) technology for the diagnosis of retroviruses prompted the development and evaluation of a Western blot assay with whole-cell T. pallidum as the antigen. The assay detected antibodies in syphilitic serum or plasma from dilutions of specimens incubated overnight with test strips. A test was considered positive when at least three of four major antigens having molecular masses of 15.5, 17, 44.5, and 47 kDa were detected. The Western blot assay had 93.8% sensitivity and 100% specificity for clinically defined samples. The Western blot assay was compared with double-staining fluorescent treponemal antibody absorption [FTA-ABS (DS)], which had a sensitivity and a specificity of 91.7 and 92.0%, respectively. Dilution series studies of syphilis-positive specimens indicated that the Western blot assay has an endpoint of reactivity at least 3 to 4 serial dilutions greater than that for FTA-ABS (DS). Overall, the greater than 95% agreement between the Western blot assay and FTA-ABS (DS) for clinically defined specimens indicates that the sensitivity of the Western blot assay is equal to or greater than that of FTA-ABS (DS). The Western blot assay demonstrated no false-positive or equivocal reactivities for nonsyphilitic specimens, including normal specimens (both plasma and serum), biological false-positives, and specimens with elevated gamma globulin or antinuclear antibody. We conclude that the high sensitivity and specificity of the T. pallidum Western blot assay, together with its simplicity and objectivity, make it a good confirmatory test for syphilis.