Using Delayed Hypersensitivity to Test for TB


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Photo of an object shaped like a bike handle with sharp projections on one end.
The modern version of Pirquet’s scarification is the tine test, which uses devices like this to administer tuberculin antigen into the skin, usually on the inside of the forearm. The tine test is considered less reliable than the Mantoux test. (credit: modification of work by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OpenStax Microbiology

Austrian pediatrician Clemans von Pirquet (1874–1929) first described allergy mechanisms, including type III serum sickness. His interest led to the development of a test for tuberculosis (TB), using the tuberculin antigen, based on earlier work identifying the TB pathogen performed by Robert Koch. Pirquet’s method involved scarification, which results in simultaneous multiple punctures, using a device with an array of needles to break the skin numerous times in a small area. The device Pirquet used was similar to the tine test device with four needles.

The tips of all the needles in the array are coated with tuberculin, a protein extract of TB bacteria, effectively introducing the tuberculin into the skin. One to 3 days later, the area can be examined for a delayed hypersensitivity reaction, signs of which include swelling and redness.

As you can imagine, scarification was not a pleasant experience, and the numerous skin punctures put the patient at risk of developing bacterial infection of the skin. Mantoux modified Pirquet’s test to use a single subcutaneous injection of purified tuberculin material. A positive test, which is indicated by a delayed localized swelling at the injection site, does not necessarily mean that the patient is currently infected with active TB. Because type IV (delayed-type) hypersensitivity is mediated by reactivation of memory T cells, such cells may have been created recently (due to an active current infection) or years prior (if a patient had TB and had spontaneously cleared it, or if it had gone into latency). However, the test can be used to confirm infection in cases in which symptoms in the patient or findings on a radiograph suggest its presence.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: