Viral serology and detection

Baillieres Clin Gastroenterol. 1995 Dec;9(4):689-721. doi: 10.1016/0950-3528(95)90057-8.


Viral detection is an important part of clinical hepatology. For many years practical clinical tests have been serological but recently newer molecular techniques have become available for virus detection, although these have yet to become routine and some, such as PCR of viral nucleic acid in blood or tissue are not yet consistently reliable. Serology remains the mainstay at present for routine diagnosis. Hepatitis A testing in clinical practice is entirely serological, the IgM response representing acute infection and the IgG response immunity, although more sophisticated molecular techniques have been applied experimentally. A second agent of epidemic enteral hepatitis, the hepatitis E virus, has recently been cloned and sequenced and serological tests for this virus are available, although experience in their use is necessarily limited and a commercial IgM assay has yet to be produced. Serological tests for the hepatitis B virus are well developed. The IgM anticore response differentiates acute infection from chronic, the latter being characterized by the persistence of hepatitis B surface antigen for over six months. Chronic carriers are at risk of liver damage and this risk is best assessed by the amount of viral DNA circulating, which can be determined using a hybridization assay. More sensitive techniques such as the branched chain DNA assay or PCR can detect lower levels of viral DNA but their clinical relevance remains to be established. The hepatitis D virus is defective and relies on hepatitis B to replicate. Serology for antibody and antigen is well established although PCR for circulating viral genome may come to supplant hepatic viral antigen as a test for hepatitis D replication. For hepatitis C serology is feasible only for antibodies, not antigens; although early tests were prone both to false positives and false negatives, current versions are more reliable. PCR has been much used for detection of hepatitis C RNA in blood and tissues and a bDNA assay is now commercially available. Cytomegalovirus detection is confounded by the problem of distinguishing asymptomatic viral replication from disease. Serology is helpful, especially in primary infections, but viral culture is a widely used method. PCR (especially quantitative modifications) or the pp65 antigenaemia assay are experimental approaches which may prove specific enough for general use.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Hepatitis Viruses / isolation & purification*
  • Hepatitis, Viral, Human / diagnosis*
  • Hepatitis, Viral, Human / virology
  • Humans
  • Serologic Tests / methods*