Despite the significant burden of disease associated with infection by group A streptococcus (GAS), little is known about the human immune response to GAS antigens after natural infection.
We evaluated 195 serum samples obtained prospectively over a consecutive 24-month period from 41 pediatric subjects who experienced a new pharyngeal GAS acquisition. An enzyme-linked immunoassay was used to determine the kinetics and antigen specificity of antibodies against 13 shared GAS antigens and 18 type-specific M peptides. The majority of the antigens tested are currently being considered as vaccine candidates.
Twelve M types of GAS were recovered from 41 subjects who experienced 51 new GAS acquisitions that elicited antibody responses against at least 1 of the 31 antigens tested (immunologically significant new GAS acquisitions). The immune responses to the 13 shared antigens were highly variable. Increases in antibody levels were detected against a mean of 3.5 shared antigens (range, 1–8). Antibody responses to the homologous M peptide were observed in 32 (63%) of the 51 episodes. Seven subjects acquired more than 1 M type of GAS. There were no new immunologically significant acquisitions of an M type against which the subject had preexisting antibodies to the homologous M peptide. Of the subjects with new GAS acquisition, 65% were asymptomatic, yet immune responses were detected against 1 or more GAS antigens. Immune responses to streptolysin O and/or deoxyribonuclease B were observed after 67% of the new GAS acquisitions. Persistently positive (>12 weeks) throat culture results were returned for 20% of the 41 subjects despite immune responses to homologous M peptides and/or shared antigens.
The availability of throat culture results, GAS isolates, and serial serum samples collected prospectively over a 2-year period of observation provided a unique opportunity for us to assess the serologic status of pediatric subjects before and after new pharyngeal acquisitions of GAS. With the exception of antibody responses to the homologous M peptides, no clear pattern of immune responses against the remaining GAS antigens was seen. There were no new immunologically significant acquisitions of emm types of GAS against which the subjects had preexisting elevated levels of antibodies against the homologous M peptide. The observation that 65% of new GAS acquisitions caused no symptoms yet were immunologically significant suggests that the majority of infections are not detected, which would result in missed opportunities for primary prevention of rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease with appropriate antimicrobial therapy.