The diagnosis of Lyme disease often depends on the measurement of serum antibodies to Borrelia burgdorferi, the spirochete that causes this disorder. Although prompt treatment with antibiotics may abrogate the antibody response to the infection, symptoms persist in some patients.
We studied 17 patients who had presented with acute Lyme disease and received prompt treatment with oral antibiotics, but in whom chronic Lyme disease subsequently developed. Although these patients had clinically active disease, none had diagnostic levels of antibodies to B. burgdorferi on either a standard enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay or immunofluorescence assay. On Western blot analysis, the level of immunoglobulin reactivity against B. burgdorferi in serum from these patients was no greater than that in serum from normal controls.
The patients had a vigorous T-cell proliferative response to whole B. burgdorferi, with a mean (±SEM) stimulation index of 17.8±3.3, similar to that (15.8±3.2) in 18 patients with chronic Lyme disease who had detectable antibodies. The T-cell response of both groups was greater than that of a control group of healthy subjects (3.1+0.5; P<0.001).
We conclude that the presence of chronic Lyme disease cannot be excluded by the absence of antibodies against B. burgdorferi and that a specific T-cell blastogenic response to B. burgdorferi is evidence of infection in sero-negative patients with clinical indications of chronic Lyme disease. (N Engl J Med 1988; 319:1441–6.)