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Leprosy, first described in ancient Indian texts from the sixth century b.c., is a nonfatal, chronic infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae, the clinical manifestations of which are largely confined to the skin, peripheral nervous system, upper respiratory tract, eyes, and testes. The unique tropism of M. leprae for peripheral nerves (from large nerve trunks to microscopic dermal nerves) and certain immunologically mediated reactional states are the major causes of morbidity in leprosy. The propensity of the disease, when untreated, to result in characteristic deformities and the recognition in most cultures that the disease is communicable from person to person have resulted historically in a profound social stigma. Today, with early diagnosis and the institution of appropriate and effective antimicrobial therapy, patients can lead productive lives in the community, and deformities and other visible manifestations can largely be prevented.


M. leprae is an obligate intracellular bacillus (0.3–1 μm wide and 1–8 μm long) that is confined to humans, armadillos in certain locales, and sphagnum moss. The organism is acid-fast, indistinguishable microscopically from other mycobacteria, and ideally detected in tissue sections by a modified Fite stain. Strain variability has been documented in this organism. M. leprae produces no known toxins and is well adapted to penetrate and reside within macrophages, yet it may survive outside the body for months. In untreated patients, only ~1% of M. leprae organisms are viable. The morphologic index (MI), a measure of the number of acid-fast bacilli (AFB) in skin scrapings that stain uniformly bright, correlates with viability. The bacteriologic index (BI), a logarithmic-scaled measure of the density of M. leprae in the dermis, may be as high as 4–6+ in untreated patients and falls by 1 unit per year during effective antimicrobial therapy; the rate of decrease is independent of the relative potency of therapy. A rising MI or BI suggests relapse and perhaps—if the patient is being treated—drug resistance. Drug resistance can be confirmed or excluded in the mouse model of leprosy, and resistance to dapsone and rifampin can be documented by the recognition of mutant genes. However, the availability of these technologies is extremely limited.

image As a result of reductive evolution, almost half of the M. leprae genome contains nonfunctional genes; only 1605 genes encode for proteins, and 1439 genes are shared with Mycobacterium tuberculosis. In contrast, M. tuberculosis uses 91% of its genome to encode for 4000 proteins. Among the lost genes in M. leprae are those for catabolic and respiratory pathways; transport systems; purine, methionine, and glutamine synthesis; and nitrogen regulation. The genome of M. leprae provides a metabolic rationale for its obligate intracellular existence and reliance on host biochemical support, a template for targets of drug development, and ultimately a pathway to cultivation. The finding of strain variability among M. leprae isolates has provided a powerful tool with which to address anew the organism’s epidemiology and pathobiology ...

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