The pitfalls of PCR for detecting pathogens on surfaces

PCR has proven an invaluable tool for the rapid diagnosis of a range of pathogens, including MRSA and C. difficile. Several studies have evaluated the potential use of PCR for the detection of pathogens on surfaces and have identified some issues that, frankly, seem pretty terminal for this application using currently available commercial PCR kits.

A study from Cleveland evaluated the use of a commercial RT-PCR test for detecting C. difficile on hospital surfaces. Three composite sites were sampled in 22 patient rooms, 41% of which housed a patient with CDI with the remaining 59% sampled after terminal cleaning and disinfection. Two swabs and a gauze were collected from each site; one swab was cultured directly onto selective agar and the other was tested using PCR. The gauze was cultured using broth enrichment. C. difficile that grew on the selective agar were tested for toxin production and only toxigenic C. difficile were included.

Overall, 23 (35%) of the 66 sites grew toxigenic C. difficile and only 4 of these were detected using the standard RT-PCR assay (sensitivity 17%, specificity 100%). The sensitivity of RT-PCR in rooms that had been cleaned and disinfected was even worse (10%). Increasing the CT threshold of the assay (making it less stringent) improved the overall sensitivity to 52% and did not affect the specificity.

The study has several important limitations. The RT-PCR assay detected only the Toxin B gene, whereas the toxigenic culture methodology would detect both Toxin A and B producers. More importantly, there was a crucial difference in sampling methodology: the gauzes used for broth enrichment culture had a 50% higher positivity rate than the swabs (in line with other findings), but only swabs were tested by both PCR and culture. Thus, if the gauzes are a more effective sampling device, this would make the RT-PCR methodology seems worse than it is. I would have liked to have seen the sensitivity of the RT-PCR assay for detecting C. difficile cultured from the swabs only, but I could not derive this from the data in the paper.

An older study from New Haven, Connecticut provides a contrasting view of the use of PCR to detect pathogens from surfaces. Here, 10 standardized sites were sampled in the rooms of 10 patients infected or colonized with MRSA, and 5 rooms of patients not known to be infected or colonized with MRSA. Swabs were directly plated onto selective agar for MRSA, then DNA was extracted from the swabs before a broth enrichment procedure using the same swabs. In this study, 40 (27%) of the 150 surfaces were positive by culture, but 90 (60%) were positive by PCR (sensitivity 93%, specificity 51%).

Deshpande 2013

Figure 1. Contrasting sensitivity and specificity when using PCR to detect C. difficile and MRSA on hospital surfaces.

It seems then that the sensitivity of PCR is too low for the environmental detection of C. difficile but the specificity is too low MRSA (figure 1). How could this be? Assuming that this is not due to experimental differences between the studies, it could be that the standard extraction procedure used for the C. difficile assay was not robust enough to liberate DNA from the mature environmental spores, resulting in low sensitivity. Conversely, the PCR assay was detecting DNA from dead MRSA on surfaces, resulting in low specificity.

So, in summary, the MRSA assay was too sensitive and the C. difficile assay was not sensitive enough! While the use of these “off the shelf” commercial assays doesn’t seem to be useful for detecting pathogens on surfaces, there may be hope for a PCR assay tailored specifically for an environmental application.

Article citations:

Deshpande A, Kundrapu S, Sunkesula VC, Cadnum JL, Fertelli D, Donskey CJ. Evaluation of a commercial real-time polymerase chain reaction assay for detection of environmental contamination with Clostridium difficile. J Hosp Infect 2013;85:76-78.

Otter JA, Havill NL, Boyce JM. Evaluation of real-time polymerase chain reaction for the detection of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus on environmental surfaces. Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol 2007;28:1003-1005.


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