The diagnostic use of in vitro molecular assays can be limited by the lack of guidelines for collection, handling, stabilization and storage of patient specimens. One of the major goals of the EC funded project SPIDIA (www.spidia.eu) is to develop evidence-based quality guidelines for the pre-analytical phase of blood samples used for molecular testing which requires intracellular RNA analytes. To this end, a survey and a pan-European external quality assessment (EQA) were implemented. This report is the summary of the results of that trial. With the European Federation of Laboratory Medicine (EFLM) support, 124 applications for participation in the trial were received from 27 different European countries, and 102 laboratories actually participated in the trial. Each participating laboratory described their respective laboratory policies and practices as well as blood collection tubes typically used in performing this type of testing. The participating laboratories received two identical blood specimens: in an EDTA tubes (unstabilized blood; n=67) or in tubes designed specifically for the stabilization of intracellular RNA in blood (PAXgene® Blood RNA tubes; n=35). Laboratories were requested to perform RNA extraction according to the laboratory's own procedure as soon as possible upon receipt of the tubes for one tube and 24h after the first extraction for the second tube. Participants (n=93) returned the two extracted RNAs to SPIDIA facility for analysis, and provided details about the reagents and protocols they used for the extraction. At the SPIDIA facility responsible for coordinating the study, the survey data were classified, and the extracted RNA samples were evaluated for purity, yield, integrity, stability, and the presence of interfering substances affecting RT-qPCR assays. All participants received a report comparing the performance of the RNA they submitted to that of the other participants. All the results obtained by participants for each RNA quality parameter were classified as "in control", "warning", "out of control" and "missing" by consensus mean analysis. From the survey data, the most variable parameters were the volume of blood collected and the time and storage temperature between blood collection and RNA extraction. Analyzing the results of quality testing of submitted RNA samples we observed a data distribution of purity, yield, and presence of assay interference in agreement with expected values. The RNA Integrity Number (RIN) values distribution was, on the other hand, much wider than the optimal expected value, which led to an "in control" classification, even for partly degraded RNA samples. On the other hand, RIN values below 5 significantly correlated with a reduction of GAPDH expression levels. Furthermore, the distribution of the values of the four transcripts investigated (c-fos, IL-1β, IL-8, and GAPDH) was wide and the RNA instability between samples separated by 24h were similar. Assuming the presence of at least two quality parameters "out of control" as an indication of a critical performance of the laboratory, 33% of the laboratories were included in this group. The results of this study will be the basis for implementing a second pan-European EQA and the results of both EQAs will be pooled and will provide the basis for the implementation of evidence-based guidelines for the pre-analytical phase of RNA analysis of blood samples.
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