Objective: To determine the range of antinuclear antibodies (ANA) in "healthy" individuals compared with that in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), systemic sclerosis (SSc; scleroderma), Sjögren's syndrome (SS), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), or soft tissue rheumatism (STR).
Methods: Fifteen international laboratories experienced in performing tests for ANA by indirect immunofluorescence participated in analyzing coded sera from healthy individuals and from patients in the 5 different disease groups described above. Except for the stipulation that HEp-2 cells should be used as substrate, each laboratory used its own in-house methodology so that the data might be expected to reflect the output of a cross-section of worldwide ANA reference laboratories. The sera were analyzed at 4 dilutions: 1:40, 1:80, 1:160, and 1:320.
Results: In healthy individuals, the frequency of ANA did not differ significantly across the 4 age subgroups spanning 20-60 years of age. This putatively normal population was ANA positive in 31.7% of individuals at 1:40 serum dilution, 13.3% at 1:80, 5.0% at 1:160, and 3.3% at 1:320. In comparison with the findings among the disease groups, a low cutoff point at 1:40 serum dilution (high sensitivity, low specificity) could have diagnostic value, since it would classify virtually all patients with SLE, SSc, or SS as ANA positive. Conversely, a high positive cutoff at 1:160 serum dilution (high specificity, low sensitivity) would be useful to confirm the presence of disease in only a portion of cases, but would be likely to exclude 95% of normal individuals.
Conclusion: It is recommended that laboratories performing immunofluorescent ANA tests should report results at both the 1:40 and 1:160 dilutions, and should supply information on the percentage of normal individuals who are positive at these dilutions. A low-titer ANA is not necessarily insignificant and might depend on at least 4 specific factors. ANA assays can be a useful discriminant in recognizing certain disease conditions, but can create misunderstanding when the limitations are not fully appreciated.