Mucosal immunity in extrinsic allergic alveolitis: salivary immunoglobulins and antibody against inhaled avian antigens among pigeon breeders


McSharry Department of Immunology, Western Infirmary, Glasgow G11 6NT, UK.



Inhaled antigens from pigeons can cause extrinsic allergic alveolitis (EAA); a model disease of pulmonary inflammation. Among pigeon breeders, serum antibody and sensitized lymphocytes specific for these antigens have been described primarily, but not always, with disease. Antibody activity within the lung may have a closer association with disease, however, sampling by alveolar lavage at bronchoscopy is impractical for screening, therefore we used saliva to quantify the mucosal antibody response.


To establish: (a) if antibody activity against inhaled avian antigens was detectable in the saliva of pigeon breeders, (b) if the distribution of saliva antibody and total immunoglobulin levels were quantitatively or qualitatively different from serum, and (c) whether the hypersensitivity symptoms of EAA were associated more with the mucosal or the systemic humoral immune response.


Saliva and serum total and avian antigen-specific IgG, IgA (IgA1 and IgA2) antibody activity in 87 pigeon breeders and 24 control subjects with no avian exposure. Albumin levels were used as a protein reference and cotinine levels confirmed smoking status. Specific hypersensitivity symptoms and various exposure indices to pigeons were established by interview.


Absolute levels and relative proportions (vs albumin) of IgG, IgA and IgA1 in saliva, and IgG in serum, were significantly higher in pigeon breeders compared with controls, suggesting mucosal inflammation. Avian antigen-specific antibody of all isotypes was readily demonstrable in saliva (predominantly IgA) and serum (predominantly IgG) from pigeon breeders, and there were no significant titres in controls. The levels of IgG antibody in saliva and in serum correlated significantly (= 0.52, < 0.001), and both correlated with the raised immunoglobulin levels. In both saliva and serum the IgG rather than the IgA antibody activity was associated with symptoms of EAA.


Antibody activity in saliva and serum, representing the mucosal and systemic responses, respectively, were both strongly stimulated by inhaled antigens. The IgG antibody titres of saliva and serum correlated significantly and were a useful index of inflammation, as measured by the raised total immunoglobulin levels, and symptoms. This suggests that IgG antibody in serum may reflect clinical and immunological sensitization of the lung mucosa. Collecting saliva is noninvasive, and saliva antibody measurement is a convenient method for monitoring EAA, especially in children, and will facilitate sampling for example in epidemiological studies of antibody prevalence.