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Wassermann's reaction

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A complement-fixation test as a diagnostic of syphilis using blood serum or cerebrospinal fluid. It is a modification of the complement-fixation reaction by Jules Jean Baptiste Vincent Bordet (1870-1961) and Octave Gengou (1875-1957) in 1901.

The "antigen" used is an alcoholic muscle extract, usually from a bull's heart. The active substance is e lipid called cardiolipin, which has nothing to do with syphilis. However, this antigen reacts with certain antibodies, so-called reagines, that commonly occur in the blood of syphilis patients. Because the antibodies are not specific for syphilis, they may occasionally occur in other diseases, like malaria and lepra. The results are designated as 1, 2, 3, and 4 plus, the intensity of the reaction usually corresponding to the severity of the infection. The disease may still exist with a negative reaction. Several negative Wassermann reactions a few years after treatment indicate the absence of syphilis.

Wassermann described his test one year after Fritz Richard Schaudinn (1871-1906) and Paul Erich Hoffmann's (1868-1959) discovered the causative organism of syphilis. Many modifications have since been made of this test, such as the Kahn, Kolmer, etc, but the general principled applied by Wassermann continue to guide the procedures. The term Wasserman's reaction is therefore applied to almost any serological test for syphilis.

Bordet and Gengou will be entered later.

Jules Jean Baptiste Vincent Bordet, Belgian physician and bacteriologist / immunologist, born June 13, 1870, Soignes; died April 6, 1961, Brussels.

Octave Gengou, Belgian bacteriologist, 1875-1957


  • A. P. von Wassermann, A. Neisser, C. Bruck:
    Eine serodiagnostische Reaktion bei Syphilis.
    Deutsche medicinische Wochenschrift, Berlin, 1906, 32: 745-746.

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