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PCR-testing for Treponema pallidum in paraffin-embedded skin biopsies: test design and impact on the diagnosis of syphilis
  1. Wera Behrhof (behrhof{at}
  1. University Mainz, Pathology, Germany
    1. Erik Springer (springer{at}
    1. University Mainz, Pathology, Germany
      1. Wolfgang Bräuninger (braeuninger{at}
      1. University Mainz, Dermatology, Germany
        1. James C Kirkpatrick (kirkpatrick{at}
        1. University Mainz, Pathology, Germany
          1. Achim Weber ({at}
          1. University Zurich, Departement of Pathology, Institute of Surgcial Pathology, Switzerland


            Background: Syphilis, a chronic infection caused by Treponema pallidum (T. pallidum), is a disease which is increasing in incidence, and thus more and more becoming a differential diagnosis in routine pathology.

            Aim: Since histological changes are not specific, we sought to develop a polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based molecular assay for the detection of T. pallidum in formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded tissues, and evaluate its diagnostic power, especially in comparison with other ancillary methods, i.e. immunohistochemistry and Dieterle staining.

            Methods: 36 skin biopsies with the clinical and /or serological diagnosis of syphilis were evaluated by morphology, immunohistochemistry and silver staining. A semi-nested PCR assay targeting the T. pallidum DNA polymerase A gene was designed and applied. Specificity of amplification was confirmed by direct sequencing of PCR products.

            Results: Overall, the presence of T. pallidum was detected in skin biopsies in 20 cases, either by immunohistochemistry, Dieterle staining, or PCR. IHC-testing was positive in 17 of 35 cases tested, and Dieterle staining in nine of 35 cases tested. In comparison, PCR-testing was positive in 14 of 36 cases, and highly dependent on the tissue quality. When excluding cases with compromised DNA quality, PCR testing was positive in all cases except one, including three cases negative by immunohistochemistry and Dieterle staining.

            Conclusions: PCR-testing is significantly more sensitive than silver staining, and provided that DNA quality is sufficient, at least as sensitive as immunohistochemistry for the detection of T. pallidum in formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded skin biopsies. Therefore, it is a useful ancillary tool in the histological diagnosis of syphilis.

            • PCR testing
            • Treponam pallidum
            • paraffin-embedded specimens

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