Assessment of the sensitivity and specificity of Xpert MTB/RIF assay as an early sputum biomarker of response to tuberculosis treatment

Lancet Respir Med. 2013 Aug;1(6):462-70. doi: 10.1016/S2213-2600(13)70119-X. Epub 2013 Jul 1.


Background: An accurate biomarker is urgently needed to monitor the response to treatment in patients with pulmonary tuberculosis. The Xpert MTB/RIF assay is a commercially available real-time PCR that can be used to detect Mycobacterium-tuberculosis-specific DNA sequences in sputum samples. We therefore evaluated this assay with serial sputum samples obtained over 26 weeks from patients undergoing treatment for tuberculosis.

Methods: We analysed sputum samples from 221 patients with smear-positive tuberculosis enrolled at two sites (Cape Town, South Africa, and Mbeya, Tanzania) of a multicentre randomised clinical trial REMoxTB of antituberculosis treatment on a weekly basis (weeks 0 to 8), then at weeks 12, 17, 22, and 26 after treatment initiation. The Xpert MTB/RIF results over time were compared with the results of standard smear microscopy and culture methods.

Findings: We obtained and analysed 2741 sputum samples from 221 patients. The reduction in positivity rates with Xpert MTB/RIF were slower than those with the standard methods. At week 8, positive results were obtained for 62 (29%) of 212 sputum samples with smear microscopy, 46 (26%) of 175 with solid culture (Löwenstein-Jensen medium), 77 (42%) of 183 with liquid culture (Bactec MGIT960 system), and 174 (84%) of 207 with Xpert MTB/RIF; at 26 weeks, positive results were obtained for ten (5%) of 199, four (3%) of 157, seven (4%) of 169, and 22 (27%) of 83 sputum samples, respectively. The reduction in detection of quantitative M tuberculosis DNA with Xpert MTB/RIF correlated with smear grades (ρ=-0·74; p<0·0001), solid culture grades (ρ=-0·73; p<0·0001), and time to liquid culture positivity (ρ=0·73; p<0·0001). Compared with the combined binary smear and culture results as a reference standard, the Xpert MTB/RIF assay had high sensitivity (97·0%, 95% CI 95·8-97·9), but poor specificity (48·6%, 45·0-52·2).

Interpretation: The poor specificity precludes the use of the Xpert MTB/RIF assay as a biomarker for monitoring tuberculosis treatment, and should not replace standard smear microscopy and culture.

Funding: Global Alliance for TB Drug Development, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UK Medical Research Council, German Ministry of Science and Technology.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Antitubercular Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Biological Assay / methods
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • DNA, Bacterial / isolation & purification
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis / genetics
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis / isolation & purification
  • Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction / methods
  • Recurrence
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Sputum / microbiology*
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Tuberculosis, Pulmonary / drug therapy*


  • Antitubercular Agents
  • Biomarkers
  • DNA, Bacterial