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J Clin Virol. 2008 Oct;43(2):247-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jcv.2008.07.003. Epub 2008 Aug 12.

False negative PCR despite high levels of JC virus DNA in spinal fluid: Implications for diagnostic testing.

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Department of Laboratory Medicine, 333 Cedar Street, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT 06520-8035, USA.


Genome amplification methods such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) have revolutionized our ability to detect viruses in spinal fluids of patients with neurologic diseases. It is not as well appreciated among clinicians that PCR protocols, quality assurance, and technical expertise vary significantly among laboratories. In a multi-laboratory blinded study of herpes simplex virus PCR, the most widely used and best validated CSF PCR assay, low-level positives were often missed and false positives were not uncommon [Schloss L, van Loon AM, Cinque P, Cleator G, Echevarria JM, Falk KI, et al. An international external quality assessment of nucleic acid amplification of herpes simplex virus. J Clin Virol 2003;28(2):175-85]. In addition, genome variability and mutations, which are increasingly recognized for a number of different viruses, can lead to falsely low or negative results. Both clinicians and laboratories must recognize the limitations of PCR, since misleading results may have serious consequences. We present here a case of a rapidly progressive, fatal neurologic illness in a young mother, whose CSF JCV DNA PCR at a reference laboratory was falsely negative. Ultimately, brain biopsy established the diagnosis of progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML). Repeat PCR testing of the same CSF targeting a different region of the genome yielded a high positive result.

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