Heat pretreatment increases resolution in DNA flow cytometry of paraffin-embedded tumor tissue

Cytometry. 1999 Mar 1;35(3):260-6. doi: 10.1002/(sici)1097-0320(19990301)35:3<260::aid-cyto9>3.0.co;2-o.


Background: Flow cytometry of single-cell suspensions prepared by enzymatic digestion from formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded tissue suffers from several major drawbacks. The most important factors that influence the results are the high and unpredictable coefficients of variation (CVs) of the G0/G1 peak in the DNA histogram and reduction of propidium iodide (PI) intercalation with DNA, resulting from protein cross-linking by formalin.

Methods: In this study we introduce a heating step (2 h incubation in citrate solution at 80 degrees C) prior to a brief pepsin digestion of tissue sections in the protocol for DNA content analysis of formalin-fixed and paraffin-embedded tissue. This new method is compared with established methods for the preparation of cell suspensions from frozen and paraffin-embedded tissues with respect to cell yield, DNA histogram resolution, DNA dye saturation kinetics, cell cycle parameters, and antigen retrieval in various epithelial and nonepithelial tissues.

Results: The recovery of single cells from the paraffin sections was doubled by the heat treatment step, while the limited time of proteolysis resulted in decreased cell debris. Furthermore, an increased fraction of cells became cytokeratin-positive, while these immunocytochemically stained cells also exhibited a higher mean fluorescence intensity. The DNA histograms prepared from cell suspensions obtained according to this new protocol showed a significantly improved resolution, leading to a better identification of peridiploid cell populations. Heat pretreatment of paraffin-embedded archival tissue sections showed PI saturation kinetics similar to, or even better than, those of fresh unfixed tissues, independent of duration of fixation.

Conclusions: This new method, making use of routinely available antigen retrieval principles, thus allows high-resolution DNA analysis of routinely fixed and paraffin-embedded tissue samples. Using external reference cells, inter- and intralaboratory standardization of DNA histograms can be achieved.

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Cell Separation
  • Colon / metabolism
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Flow Cytometry / methods*
  • Formaldehyde / metabolism
  • Hot Temperature
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Keratins / metabolism
  • Kinetics
  • Meningeal Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Paraffin Embedding
  • Pepsin A / metabolism
  • Propidium / metabolism
  • Time Factors


  • Formaldehyde
  • Propidium
  • Keratins
  • Pepsin A