Until recently, these abbreviations were known only to a small group of specialists: molecular biologists, geneticists, and virologists. But the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has put genetic testing in the spotlight of the public, and more and more people know the acronyms for PCR and RT-PCR. However, we don’t always know what’s behind them.
PCR is an acronym for Polymerase Chain Reaction – Polymerase Chain Reaction. Under this complex name, there is a method used to replicate a specific segment of DNA in a sample, allowing trace amounts of genetic material to be detected.
In 1993, American biochemist Kara Mullis received the Nobel Prize for developing the polymerase chain reaction method. He waited 10 years for it, despite the fact that in the 1980s geneticists and diagnosticians were convinced that this method was groundbreaking. After all, this was also recognized by the Nobel Committee in Stockholm.
For nearly 30 years, the PCR test has been an excellent diagnostic tool used in laboratories around the world that specialize in genetic testing. It is mainly used to detect viral infections and to monitor antiviral therapy, for example in the context of HIV infection, cytomegalovirus, hepatitis or HPV.
This tool is also very important in oncology, as it is used to diagnose and combat breast, colon, lung and leukemia. The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is used to detect mutations in the BRCA 1 and 2 genes responsible for the tendency to develop breast and ovarian cancer, as well as many genetic diseases. It is also used to diagnose some bacterial diseases such as tuberculosis or Lyme disease.
This test is also sometimes cited in courts – genetic testing by PCR is often done by forensic analysts who specialize in genetic testing. It is also commonly used in paternity tests.
It can be faster and cheaper
Unfortunately, the polymerase chain reaction method has always been time consuming. The solution to this problem turned out to be the real-time method – RT-PCR, which was developed in 1993. This is a development of the original Mollis method for the Nobel Prize. In some simplification, it can be said that PCR is enriched with fluorescent markers. Thanks to them, as DNA or RNA replicates, the sample begins to emit light – after each repetition cycle, and not just at the end of the test. Thanks to this, you do not have to wait for the entire search process to be completed to know that the desired DNA is in it. It is immediately visible, hence the name in real time.
– It is also worth noting that the identification of the RT-PCR method is cheaper than in the classical PCR. And this is of great importance in the era of mass testing – says Kasjan Shimiako, director of technology at the Polish biotechnology company GeneMe, which produces SARS-CoV-2 tests. All of this has made RT-PCR tests an ideal diagnostic tool during a pandemic.