Background PCR-based evidence of infection by simian virus 40 (SV40) has been reported in varying proportions of pleural mesotheliomas and other tumours, but data are conflicting and reproducibility limited. During a study of SV40 in relation to homozygous deletion of CDKN2A in mesotheliomas, we became concerned by inconsistent results and therefore used several independent techniques to investigate SV40 in these tumours. Methods High-quality DNA and RNA were extracted from 71 frozen mesothelioma samples. DNA PCR was done with four sets of primers for the SV40 T-antigen gene. RNA transcripts were examined by RT-PCR. Findings The first two primer sets for DNA PCR gave positive results in proportions similar to those reported in positive studies (56-62%) but there were unusual reproducibility difficulties. These primers were in a region of the T-antigen gene (nucleotides 4100-4713) that is present in many common laboratory plasmids. In assays with PCR primers not included within that region, only four cases (6%) showed products but these were too faint to suggest clonal infection. Further PCR assays confirmed that the SV40 sequences in the tumour samples had a deletion found only in plasmids, not in native functional SV40. Review of previous studies showed a similar pattern of discrepancies between SV40 T-antigen DNA PCR results obtained with primers within and beyond the region 4100-4713. All 71 mesotheliomas were negative for T-antigen transcripts by RT-PCR, and lacked T-antigen-positive tumour cells by immunohistochemistry. Interpretation Our data based on three independent experimental approaches do not support a significant role for SV40 in human mesotheliomas. The risk of false-positive results due to contamination by common laboratory plasmids containing SV40 sequences has been underestimated. Studies of SV40 based on PCR methods require careful primer design to reduce this risk. Relevance to practice This paper presents several lines of evidence against the proposed link between SV40 infection and human mesotheliomas. Studies reporting a high prevalence of SV40 DNA in human tumours have been based on molecular assays prone to false-positive results. Because SV40 appears unlikely to have a major role, if any, in human mesotheliomas, clinicians should continue to consider asbestos exposure as the most likely and most thoroughly established aetiological factor in individuals with this cancer.
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