AIM: To develop a methodology for direct detection of high risk human papillomavirus (HPV) infection in routine cervical smears by non-isotopic in situ hybridisation (NISH) which can be compared with cytopathological assessment of the same cells. METHODS: The methodology was established using cultured cells and routine cervical smears hybridised with digoxigenin labelled probes for HPV, 16, 18, 31, and 33. The technique was applied to the analysis of 53 patients from a sexually transmitted disease clinic. RESULTS: The optimal sensitivity achieved for single HPV detection in cultured cells was 1-2 copies of HPV 16 per cell and that for detection of a cocktail of HPV types in routine cervical smears was 2.5-12 copies per cell. Of parallel smears taken from patients with a normal Papinacolau-stained smear 33.3% (24) contained a HPV 16, 18, 31, and 33 signal indicating an occult HPV infection. The prevalence of these HPV types was similar in women in whom a cytopathological diagnosis of wart virus infection was made (64.7%, 17) and in patients with mild dyskaryosis (75%, 12). CONCLUSIONS: The methodology evolved localises HPV sequences directly to epithelial cell nuclei, which can be morphologically assessed by haematoxylin counterstaining. Sample contamination with exogenous viral sequences can be distinguished from true infection. In this study, a HPV signal was not found in morphologically normal epithelial cells. The methods described will permit the detection of HPV sequences in routinely collected cervical smears and the evaluation of the natural history and potential clinical relevance of HPV infection without changes in clinical practice.
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