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Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2014 Nov;239(11):1443-60. doi: 10.1177/1535370214523880. Epub 2014 Mar 25.

Molecular diagnosis in clinical parasitology: when and why?

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Department of Microbiology, The University of Hong Kong, Queen Mary Hospital, Pok Fu Lam, Hong Kong.
Department of Pathology, United Christian Hospital, Kwun Tong of New Kowloon, Hong Kong.
Department of Microbiology, The University of Hong Kong, Queen Mary Hospital, Pok Fu Lam, Hong Kong


Microscopic detection and morphological identification of parasites from clinical specimens are the gold standards for the laboratory diagnosis of parasitic infections. The limitations of such diagnostic assays include insufficient sensitivity and operator dependence. Immunoassays for parasitic antigens are not available for most parasitic infections and have not significantly improved the sensitivity of laboratory detection. Advances in molecular detection by nucleic acid amplification may improve the detection in asymptomatic infections with low parasitic burden. Rapidly accumulating genomic data on parasites allow the design of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) primers directed towards multi-copy gene targets, such as the ribosomal and mitochondrial genes, which further improve the sensitivity. Parasitic cell or its free circulating parasitic DNA can be shed from parasites into blood and excreta which may allow its detection without the whole parasite being present within the portion of clinical sample used for DNA extraction. Multiplex nucleic acid amplification technology allows the simultaneous detection of many parasitic species within a single clinical specimen. In addition to improved sensitivity, nucleic acid amplification with sequencing can help to differentiate different parasitic species at different stages with similar morphology, detect and speciate parasites from fixed histopathological sections and identify anti-parasitic drug resistance. The use of consensus primer and PCR sequencing may even help to identify novel parasitic species. The key limitation of molecular detection is the technological expertise and expense which are usually lacking in the field setting at highly endemic areas. However, such tests can be useful for screening important parasitic infections in asymptomatic patients, donors or recipients coming from endemic areas in the settings of transfusion service or tertiary institutions with transplantation service. Such tests can also be used for monitoring these recipients or highly immunosuppressed patients, so that early preemptive treatment can be given for reactivated parasitic infections while the parasitic burden is still low.


Parasites; molecular diagnosis; nucleic acid amplification

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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