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Journal Articles Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine Year : 2013

The theory of reference values: an unfinished symphony


The history of the theory of reference values can be written as an unfinished symphony. The first movement, allegro con fuoco, played from 1960 to 1980: a mix of themes devoted to the study of biological variability (intra-, inter-individual, short- and long-term), preanalytical conditions, standardization of analytical methods, quality control, statistical tools for deriving reference limits, all of them complex variations developed on a central melody: the new concept of reference values that would replace the notion of normality whose definition was unclear. Additional contributions (multivariate reference values, use of reference limits from broad sets of patient data, drug interferences) conclude the movement on the variability of laboratory tests. The second movement, adagio, from 1980 to 2000, slowly develops and implements initial works. International and national recommendations were published by the IFCC-LM (International Federation of Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine) and scientific societies [French (SFBC), Spanish (SEQC), Scandinavian societies…]. Reference values are now topics of many textbooks and of several congresses, workshops, and round tables that are organized all over the world. Nowadays, reference values are part of current practice in all clinical laboratories, but not without difficulties, particularly for some laboratories to produce their own reference values and the unsuitability of the concept with respect to new technologies such as HPLC, GCMS, and PCR assays. Clinicians through consensus groups and practice guidelines have introduced their own tools, the decision limits, likelihood ratios and Reference Change Value (RCV), creating confusion among laboratorians and clinicians in substituting reference values and decision limits in laboratory reports. The rapid development of personalized medicine will eventually call for the use of individual reference values. The beginning of the second millennium is played allegro ma non-troppo from 2000 to 2012: the theory of reference values is back into fashion. The need to revise the concept is emerging. The manufacturers make a friendly pressure to facilitate the integration of Reference Intervals (RIs) in their technical documentation. Laboratorians are anxiously awaiting the solutions for what to do. The IFCC-LM creates Reference Intervals and Decision Limits Committee (C-RIDL) in 2005. Simultaneously, a joint working group IFCC-CLSI is created on the same topic. In 2008 the initial recommendations of IFCC-LM are revised and new guidelines are published by the Clinical and Laboratory Standards Institute (CLSI C28-A3). Fundamentals of the theory of reference values are not changed, but new avenues are explored: RIs transference, multicenter reference intervals, and a robust method for deriving RIs from small number of subjects. Concomitantly, other statistical methods are published such as bootstraps calculation and partitioning procedures. An alternative to recruiting healthy subjects proposes the use of biobanks conditional to the availability of controlled preanalytical conditions and of bioclinical data. The scope is also widening to include veterinary biology! During the early 2000s, several groups proposed the concept of ‘Universal RIs’ or ‘Global RIs’. Still controversial, their applications await further investigations. The fourth movement, finale: beyond the methodological issues (statistical and analytical essentially), important questions remain unanswered. Do RIs intervene appropriately in medical decision-making? Are RIs really useful to the clinicians? Are evidence-based decision limits more appropriate? It should be appreciated that many laboratory tests represent a continuum that weakens the relevance of RIs. In addition, the boundaries between healthy and pathological states are shady areas influenced by many biological factors. In such a case the use of a single threshold is questionable. Wherever it will apply, individual reference values and reference change values have their place. A variation on an old theme! It is strange that in the period of personalized medicine (that is more stratified medicine), the concept of reference values which is based on stratification of homogeneous subgroups of healthy people could not be discussed and developed in conjunction with the stratification of sick patients. That is our message for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine. Prospects are broad, enthusiasm is not lacking: much remains to be done, good luck for the new generations!

Dates and versions

hal-01708306 , version 1 (13-02-2018)



Gérard Siest, Josep Henny, Ralph Gräsbeck, Peter Wilding, Claude Petitclerc, et al.. The theory of reference values: an unfinished symphony. Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine, 2013, 51 (1), pp.47-64. ⟨10.1515/cclm-2012-0682⟩. ⟨hal-01708306⟩
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