Selection of a cutoff value for real-time polymerase chain reaction results to fit a diagnostic purpose: analytical and epidemiologic approaches

J Vet Diagn Invest. 2011 Jan;23(1):2-15. doi: 10.1177/104063871102300102.


Diagnostic laboratories frequently select a subjective cutoff value for real-time amplification assays, above which a threshold cycle (Ct) value is deemed false. Commonly, higher Ct values are interpreted as amplification or fluorescence artifacts, or cross contaminations. Although the implementation of Ct cutoff might be reasonable, its justification and selection should be based on evidence. The current article reviewed evidence-based strategies to select Ct cutoffs grouped in analytical and epidemiologic approaches. Analytical strategies use criteria gathered during the assay development and include fluorescence threshold, reaction end-cycle, limit of detection, and artifact investigation. Variability in amplification efficacy across test runs may induce some instability in an intended Ct cutoff and requires some standardization or normalization procedures. Epidemiologic strategies use criteria based on either the probability or the cost of a false test result associated with a specified cutoff. Cutoffs, depending on the intended purpose of the test, can be selected graphically to minimize the probability of either false-positive or false-negative results by using two-graph receiver operating characteristics curves. The assay's diagnostic sensitivity and specificity may vary with the tested population, thus, the estimated two-graph receiver operating characteristics curve is population dependent and should be established for the targeted population. Although the selection of a cutoff based on misclassification cost depends on infection prevalence, the selection based on predictive values does not. To optimize the test average diagnostic performance, the Ct cutoff should be selected when diagnostic odds ratio is maximal. Epidemiologic approaches were illustrated by selecting Ct cutoffs for a real-time assay for Infectious salmon anemia virus.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Communicable Diseases / diagnosis
  • Communicable Diseases / epidemiology
  • Communicable Diseases / veterinary*
  • Decision Trees*
  • Fish Diseases / diagnosis
  • Fish Diseases / epidemiology
  • Fish Diseases / virology
  • Isavirus / genetics
  • Orthomyxoviridae Infections / diagnosis
  • Orthomyxoviridae Infections / epidemiology
  • Orthomyxoviridae Infections / veterinary
  • ROC Curve
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction / methods
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction / standards
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction / veterinary*
  • Salmon
  • Sensitivity and Specificity