VALIDATION STUDIES
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Elevated serum concentrations of beta-tryptase, but not alpha-tryptase, in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). An investigation of anaphylactic mechanisms.

BACKGROUND: Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, (SIDS) or cot death, remains the most common category of post-perinatal death in the UK. By definition, the cause of death is unknown, but a long-standing theory is that some of these deaths could be the result of anaphylaxis.

OBJECTIVE: To investigate the potential contribution of anaphylactic mechanisms to deaths in infancy by determining relative levels of alpha- and beta-tryptases and both total and allergen-specific IgE in sera from groups of infants whose deaths were attributed to SIDS or to other causes.

METHODS: Serum samples were collected at the time of post-mortem examination from infants whose death was classed as SIDS (n = 40) and from a comparison group in which cause of death had been established (n = 32). Serum tryptase concentrations were measured with a radioimmunoassay with monoclonal antibody G5 which detects primarily beta-tryptase or an ELISA with antibody AA5 which has equal sensitivity for alpha- and beta-tryptases. Levels of total IgE and IgE specific for casein, beta-lactoglobulin, house dust mite and moulds were determined.

RESULTS: Analysis of the results of the two assays for tryptase indicated that levels of the beta-like tryptase (the form secreted on anaphylactic degranulation) were significantly higher in serum from infants with SIDS compared with those whose death was explained. There was no evidence for an increase in serum levels of alpha-tryptase (the variant secreted constitutively from mast cells). Total levels of serum IgE did not differ between the two groups and, reflecting the low circulating IgE concentrations in infancy, an elevation in IgE specific for the panel of allergens was not detected.

CONCLUSIONS: In a proportion of SIDS victims there may be increased serum levels of beta-like tryptase, a marker for anaphylaxis. The failure to detect an increase in alpha-tryptase would suggest that mast cell hyperplasia is not a feature of cot death. The nature of the inciting agents remains unclear, but anaphylaxis deserves serious consideration as a possible cause of sudden death in infancy.

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