Diagnostic performance of real-time quantitative PCR in tear samples in various subtypes of herpes simplex keratitis

Gautier Hoarau,Oscar Haigh,Christelle Vauloup-Fellous, Rafael Boucher, Alexandra Rouquette, Pascale Faure, Lamia Limam,Marc Labetoulle,Antoine Rousseau


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Diagnosis of herpes simplex keratitis (HSK) is mostly based on clinical findings, yet biological confirmation supports management of challenging cases. This study evaluated the place of real-time quantitative PCR (RT-qPCR) on tear samplings in the management of HSK. Clinical records of patients who underwent tear sampling tested by RT-qPCR for herpes simplex virus type 1 for an acute episode of corneal inflammation or defect between January 2013 and December 2021 were retrospectively reviewed, and results were compared to clinical diagnosis (i.e., HSK or not) based on biomicroscopic findings and medical history. Of 465 tested tear samples from 364 patients, a clinical diagnosis of active (ongoing) HSK was recorded in 240 cases, among which 76 were RT-qPCR positive (global sensitivity of 31.6%, specificity of 99.5%). Sensitivity of RT-qPCR was higher in epithelial (97.4%) and stromal keratitis with ulceration (48.7%), compared to other types of HSK (23.5% in keratouveitis, 13.6% in endotheliitis, 11.1% in postherpetic neurotrophic keratopathy, and 8.1% in stromal keratitis without ulceration). The highest viral loads were detected from epithelial and stromal keratitis with ulceration, while in HSK with no epithelial involvement, the viral load detected was 196-fold lower, on average. The proportion of clinically characterized HSK patients with negative tear samples was higher in patients receiving antiviral treatment (P < 0.0001). RT-qPCR, performed on tear samples, can help in confirming diagnosis in case of presumed HSK, including clinical forms with no obvious epithelial involvement. The sensitivity of tear sampling is much higher whenever epithelial keratitis is present.
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