Due to the high sensitivity level (which can be pushed to the limit of one molecule) and its extraordinary flexibility, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is the method of choice for the detection of nucleic acids present in very low concentration in biological samples. Since the qualitative features of PCR amplification have limited its use, several PCR-based approaches for the quantitation of low-abundance acid species have been planned and proposed in the last few years. Recently, different lines of evidence have indicated that competitive PCR and competitive reverse-transcription-PCR share several advantages over other quantitative approaches. This evidence opens up unexpected possibilities in many biological fields, including virology; in fact, availability of reliable techniques for the absolute quantitation of DNA and RNA species may be the key to a better understanding of the pathogenic steps of most viral diseases and for a more precise monitoring of patients treated with specific antiviral compounds. In this review article, we summarize the procedures adopted for this quantitative molecular approach; additionally, several important technical aspects to plan novel competitive PCR-based applications are analyzed, and early results obtained using cPCR for the direct evaluation of viral activity in vivo are discussed.
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