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Syphilis: Diagnosis

by John Fisher, MD
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    00:01 So how do you make the laboratory diagnosis of syphilis? Well, that’s very stage-dependent, and you use a combination of clinical and lab criteria.

    00:14 So to make a microbiologic diagnosis, you can actually directly detect Treponema pallidum in clinical material by either darkfield microscopy or by immunohistochemical stains of tissue specimens showing you special stains shown in this tissue sample.

    00:34 More commonly, however, we rely upon serologic tests.

    00:39 And the serologic tests are either treponemal – in other words, they’re derived from treponemal antigens or they are non-treponemal.

    00:48 Let’s talk about these treponemal and non-treponemal tests.

    00:54 First, start with the non-treponemal tests.

    00:58 The non-treponemal tests use an antigen that is derived in part from cow heart and other ingredients.

    01:08 People with syphilis apparently have antibodies to these features.

    01:16 And so, we test that with either of the RPR or the TRUST test.

    01:22 Essentially, we attach that antigen to little particles.

    01:28 They can be red particles or black particles.

    01:31 The black particles are the RPR.

    01:32 The red particles are in the TRUST test.

    01:36 And so, we attach that antigen to those particles, and then we expose those particles with antigen on them to the patient’s serum.

    01:48 And if the patient has syphilis, they will cause those particles to agglutinate and they can be read with the naked eye.

    01:58 I think you can see in the figure here there are some particles that have precipitated and you can dilute them out – dilute the patient’s serum way out before the particles are no longer able to clump.

    02:17 So they are read grossly for what we call macroflocculation.

    02:22 The other test that is now essentially only used for the cerebrospinal fluid – used to be used for screening.

    02:30 But it’s laborious because it has to be done with a microscope looking for flocculation.

    02:37 And because you have to use a microscope, you’ve got to heat and activate the serum.

    02:43 This is a problem for screening a lot of individuals.

    02:47 That’s why we no longer really use the VDRL as a screening technique.

    02:53 The one problem with the serologic test is that there are some other conditions which will give you a false-positive test, and that can be either transient or chronic.

    03:06 If you’re talking about transient false-positives, you’re talking about diseases that have lots of antibodies associated like malaria, brucellosis, or infectious mononucleosis.

    03:19 A chronic false-positive test for syphilis may be seen in various connective tissue diseases, for example, lupus or in HIV infection where there’s lots of immunoglobulins circulating.

    03:32 Patients who have IV drug use frequently have lots of antibodies because of all the particles they also inject, which produce a lot of antibodies.

    03:44 Leprosy and hepatitis C may result in chronic biologic false-positive test for syphilis.

    03:55 Then we turn to the treponemal test, which use actually antigens derived from Treponema pallidum.

    04:05 We used to use the FTA absorption test, the fluorescent treponemal antibody test, but this is no longer considered the gold standard.

    04:15 What most laboratories now use is something called the Treponema pallidum particle agglutination test, or TP-PA test.

    04:24 And these are gelatin particles that contain the actual antigens of Treponema pallidum.

    04:32 And they will cause the gelatin particles with the antigen to clump when exposed to patient’s serum who have syphilis.

    04:43 This is read manually.

    04:45 And now, supplanting that, but not completely, is the so-called enzyme immunoassay test, or ELISA some people refer to it as, and these are microtiter wells.

    04:58 Here we’re showing a microbiologist employing an ELISA test.

    05:04 This is fully automatable.

    05:06 And now, it’s often done first in many laboratories instead of the Treponema pallidum particle agglutination test.

    05:16 The discussion of the serologic diagnosis of early syphilis, latent syphilis, either early-latent or late latent congenital syphilis, and other uses of the treponemal and non-treponemal test are really beyond the scope of this discussion.

    05:37 We are going to provide you with some material that will go through all of these, whether to establish a definite or probable diagnosis serologically.

    05:49 But I think it’s preferable to have that available for you that you can download.

    05:55 But it’s not probably high-yield for examinations and I prefer to move on to therapy at this point in time.


    About the Lecture

    The lecture Syphilis: Diagnosis by John Fisher, MD is from the course Genital and Sexually Transmitted Infections. It contains the following chapters:

    • Syphilis – Diagnosis
    • Non-treponemal Tests
    • Treponemal Tests

    Included Quiz Questions

    1. Darkfield microscopy
    2. Gram staining
    3. Scanning probe microscopy
    4. The organisms are too small to see on microscopy.
    5. Electron microscopy
    1. Rapid plasma reagin testing (RPR)
    2. Toluidine red unheated serum testing (TRUST)
    3. Veneral Disease Research Laboratory test (VDRL)
    4. FTA-ABS testing
    5. Enzyme immunoassay testing
    1. Mononucleosis
    2. Gonorrheal infection
    3. HIV infection
    4. Shigellosis
    5. Hepatitis A
    1. Chronic smoking
    2. Intravenous drug use
    3. Autoimmune diseases
    4. Hepatitis C
    5. HIV infection

    Author of lecture Syphilis: Diagnosis

     John Fisher, MD

    John Fisher, MD


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