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Relevance of the determination of serum-specific IgE antibodies in the diagnosis of immediate β-lactam allergy


Pascal Demoly MD, PhD
Exploration des allergies – Maladies Respiratoires and INSERM U454 – IFR3
Hôpital Arnaud de Villeneuve
University Hospital of Montpellier
34295 Montpellier Cedex 5


Background:  Allergic reactions to β-lactams are the most frequent cause of adverse drug reactions mediated by specific immunologic mechanisms. They can be explored by in vivo and/or in vitro tests. The measurement of serum-specific immunoglobulin E (IgE) presents several advantages: safety, simplicity, and availability to nonallergologist physicians.

Objectives:  To establish the diagnostic value of specific IgE determination in the diagnosis procedure of immediate β-lactam allergy.

Methods:  The in vitro determination of β-lactam-specific IgE antibodies was compared in three well-defined groups of patients (n = 45): one with negative skin tests and a positive drug provocation test, another with positive skin tests, and a third control exposed population with good tolerance. Two techniques were used: the CAP-FEIA system (Phadia®) commercially available and a homemade radioallergosorbent test (RAST).

Results:  The specificity of CAP-FEIA ranged from 83.3% to 100% and sensitivity from 0% to 25% depending on initial clinical manifestations. The specificity of RAST was between 66.7% and 83.3% and sensitivity 42.9% and 75%. In the subgroup of patients with an anaphylactic shock and negative skin tests, the sensitivity and specificity of RAST were 75%. Positive and negative predictive values were 45.5% and 77.1% with CAP-FEIA and 38.5% and 81.5% with RAST, respectively.

Conclusion:  These results indicate that, although the specificity of β-lactam-specific IgE measurement is good, sensitivity is low. Immunoglobulin E measurement should be limited to patients with a clinical history of anaphylactic shock and negative skin tests in order to avoid a drug provocation test. More sensitive assays should be developed.