We investigated whether an indirect nuclear terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase (TdT) immunofluorescence (IF) assay on single cells present in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is more effective than conventional cytomorphology for early detection or exclusion of (minimal) meningeal leukemic infiltration in patients with a TdT+ malignancy. During a 5- year follow-up study, 1,661 consecutive CSF samples from 113 children with a TdT+ acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) (n = 100), a TdT+ acute nonlymphoblastic leukemia (ANLL) (n = 8), or a TdT+ non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL) (n = 5) were analyzed. In 1,511 (91.9%) of 1,643 evaluable CSF samples, the positive and negative findings of both cytomorphology and the TdT-IF assay were concordant. In 47 (2.9%) samples from 28 patients, the cytomorphology was suspect while the TdT- IF assay was negative; follow-up as long as 58 months revealed no CNS leukemia in any patient. In 85 (5.2%) samples, cytomorphology was negative (n = 70) or suspect (n = 15) but TdT+ cells were detected. RBC contamination seriously hampered evaluation in 31 of these 85 samples. From the remaining 54 TdT+ samples from 29 patients, 40 samples preceded overt CNS leukemia in 20 patients. Two consecutive findings of TdT+ cells in the CSF were always followed by overt CNS leukemia. At initial diagnosis, 11 children had TdT+ cells in their RBC-free CSF. In one of these children, morphology was suspect; a repeated lumbar puncture was positive on both assays. Thus, initial CNS leukemia was diagnosed. In the other ten children, morphology was negative. In six of them, CNS leukemia was diagnosed 2 to 20 months later. In 32 other children examined at initial diagnosis, neither TdT+ cells nor blasts were observed in the CSF. In none of these patients was a CNS leukemia diagnosed after a follow-up of 2.5 to 57 months (median 24 months). In 207 control CSF samples from 58 children with TdT- oncologic, hematologic, or infectious diseases, no TdT+ cells could be detected. The TdT-IF assay is easy to perform and is a more reliable diagnostic tool for detection of CNS leukemia at an early stage than is cytomorphology. At initial diagnosis, the finding of Tdt+ cells in a RBC-free CSF sample with a negative cytomorphology is highly predictive for development of overt CNS leukemia.

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