Importance: Identifying infectious causes of subacute or chronic meningitis can be challenging. Enhanced, unbiased diagnostic approaches are needed.
Objective: To present a case series of patients with diagnostically challenging subacute or chronic meningitis using metagenomic next-generation sequencing (mNGS) of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) supported by a statistical framework generated from mNGS of control samples from the environment and from patients who were noninfectious.
Design, setting, and participants: In this case series, mNGS data obtained from the CSF of 94 patients with noninfectious neuroinflammatory disorders and from 24 water and reagent control samples were used to develop and implement a weighted scoring metric based on z scores at the species and genus levels for both nucleotide and protein alignments to prioritize and rank the mNGS results. Total RNA was extracted for mNGS from the CSF of 7 participants with subacute or chronic meningitis who were recruited between September 2013 and March 2017 as part of a multicenter study of mNGS pathogen discovery among patients with suspected neuroinflammatory conditions. The neurologic infections identified by mNGS in these 7 participants represented a diverse array of pathogens. The patients were referred from the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center (n = 2), Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center (n = 2), Cleveland Clinic (n = 1), University of Washington (n = 1), and Kaiser Permanente (n = 1). A weighted z score was used to filter out environmental contaminants and facilitate efficient data triage and analysis.
Main outcomes and measures: Pathogens identified by mNGS and the ability of a statistical model to prioritize, rank, and simplify mNGS results.
Results: The 7 participants ranged in age from 10 to 55 years, and 3 (43%) were female. A parasitic worm (Taenia solium, in 2 participants), a virus (HIV-1), and 4 fungi (Cryptococcus neoformans, Aspergillus oryzae, Histoplasma capsulatum, and Candida dubliniensis) were identified among the 7 participants by using mNGS. Evaluating mNGS data with a weighted z score-based scoring algorithm reduced the reported microbial taxa by a mean of 87% (range, 41%-99%) when taxa with a combined score of 0 or less were removed, effectively separating bona fide pathogen sequences from spurious environmental sequences so that, in each case, the causative pathogen was found within the top 2 scoring microbes identified using the algorithm.
Conclusions and relevance: Diverse microbial pathogens were identified by mNGS in the CSF of patients with diagnostically challenging subacute or chronic meningitis, including a case of subarachnoid neurocysticercosis that defied diagnosis for 1 year, the first reported case of CNS vasculitis caused by Aspergillus oryzae, and the fourth reported case of C dubliniensis meningitis. Prioritizing metagenomic data with a scoring algorithm greatly clarified data interpretation and highlighted the problem of attributing biological significance to organisms present in control samples used for metagenomic sequencing studies.