, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp 43-53

Performance Characteristics of a Reverse Transcriptase–Polymerase Chain Reaction Assay for the Detection of Tumor-specific Fusion Transcripts from Archival Tissue

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Pediatric small round cell tumors still pose tremendous diagnostic problems. In difficult cases, the ability to detect tumor-specific gene fusion transcripts for several of these neoplasms, including Ewing sarcoma/peripheral primitive neuroectodermal tumor (ES/PNET), synovial sarcoma (SS), alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma (ARMS), and desmoplastic small round cell tumor (DSRCT) using reverse transcriptase–polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), can be extremely helpful. Few studies to date, however, have systematically examined several different tumor types for the presence of multiple different fusion transcripts in order to determine the specificity and sensitivity of the RT-PCR method, and no study has addressed this issue for formalin-fixed material. The objectives of this study were to address the specificity, sensitivity, and practicality of such an assay applied strictly to formalin-fixed tissue blocks. Our results demonstrate that, for these tumors, the overall sensitivity for detecting each fusion transcript is similar to that reported in the literature for RT-PCR on fresh or formalin-fixed tissues. The specificity of the assay is very high, being essentially 100% for each primer pair when interpreting the results from visual inspection of agarose gels. However, when these same agarose gels were examined using Southern blotting, a small number of tumors also yielded reproducibly detectable weak signals for unexpected fusion products, in addition to a strong signal for the expected fusion product. Fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) studies in one such case indicated that a rearrangement that would account for the unexpected fusion was not present, while another case was equivocal. The overall specificity for each primer pair used in this assay ranged from 94 to 100%. Therefore, RT-PCR using formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded tissue sections can be used to detect chimeric transcripts as a reliable, highly sensitive, and highly specific diagnostic assay. However, we strongly suggest that the final interpretation of the results from this assay be viewed in light of the other features of the case, including clinical history, histology, and immunohistochemistry, by the diagnostic pathologist. Additional studies such as FISH may be useful in clarifying the nature of equivocal or unexpected results.