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Molecular Versus Culture - Pros and Cons

Traditional culture methods for the detection and identification of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) employing mannitol salt and/or blood agar for cultivation, can take up to 72 hours for isolation and identification, depending on the identification procedures utilized. Concurrent with the development of molecular assays, improvements in culture methods have also been achieved. CHROmagar™ media, specific for MRSA, are employed by many laboratories. These media are both selective and differential, containing chromogenic substrates. MRSA strains utilize the substrates to produce colonies of a specific and characteristic color, minimizing the need for additional identification procedures.

Initially these agars required 48 hours of incubation; newer formulations require only 24 hours incubation.

Given the reduced incubation and identification requirements, what are the pros and cons of the molecular assays? Cost per test will be greater with the molecular assays as compared to culture methods. Will molecular methods provide for a more efficient workflow and significant improvement in availability of results? To some extent, this will depend on how they can be implemented within each different laboratory setting.

Both of the previously described molecular assays require manual specimen preparation and extraction before the sample is placed into the instrument. This hands-on work may actually be greater than the effort expended in swabbing and streaking a culture plate. How much an obstacle this is for implementation will depend on both the volume of testing and the staff available. In a high volume setting, this will be a greater factor.

Will tests be performed as specimens come in, or will specimens be accumulated and batched? If controls are required with each run, batching is desirable to reduce this cost. If testing will occur in batches, how many batches can be performed in one day? This will be heavily influenced by the capacity of the instrument. (For example, a single Smart Cycler unit can run up to 16 samples; multiple units would be needed in a high volume lab.) Can they be set up on more than one shift? The greater the number and frequency of batches that can be run, the greater improvement in turnaround time can be realized. Given these variables, implementation of a molecular assay for MRSA is not a given in each laboratory.