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Reference assays for Clostridium difficile infection: one or two gold standards?
  1. Timothy Planche1,2,
  2. Mark Wilcox1,2
  1. 1Centre for Infection, Division of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, St George's University of London, Cranmer Terrace, London, UK
  2. 2Microbiology, Leeds Teaching Hospitals and University of Leeds, Old Medical School, Leeds General Infirmary, Leeds, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Timothy Planche, Centre for Infection, Division of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, St George's University of London, Cranmer Terrace, London SW17 0RE, UK; tplanche{at}


Accurate diagnosis of Clostridium difficile infection (CDI) is essential for optimal treatment, prevention and control. There are two reference assays for CDI diagnosis: the cell cytotoxicity assay (CCTA) and toxigenic culture (TC). Importantly, these tests actually detect different targets: CCTA detects the presence of C difficile toxins (primarily toxin B, but also toxin A), whereas TC detects the presence in the stool of C difficile with the potential to produce toxin. Not surprisingly studies comparing the results of these assays show imperfect agreement. Thus, a faecal sample may be CCTA negative but TC positive, and this raises the crucial question about the clinical significance of the presence of C difficile with the capacity to produce toxin but no actual detectable free toxin. A positive TC result indicates that a patient with diarrhoea is potentially infectious. TC also has the advantage that the cultured isolate is available for typing and for susceptibility testing. In general, however, CCTA has been shown to be a better test for the laboratory confirmation of CDI, although additional culture may be needed to optimise sensitivity. Crucially, when these reference assays are used to determine the accuracy of alternative diagnostic tests, care should be taken to compare methods with their appropriate standard (ie, compare tests that target equivalent end-points). Such issues have contributed to the variable and often suboptimal performance of rapid diagnostic tests for CDI. Further research is urgently needed to improve knowledge of the utility of routine diagnostic tests in CDI and the factors that influence their performance.

  • Diagnostics
  • hospital infections
  • infection control
  • infectious intestinal disease
  • microbiology

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.