Carboxyfluorescein succinimidyl ester-based proliferative assays for assessment of T cell function in the diagnostic laboratory

Immunol Cell Biol. 1999 Dec;77(6):559-64. doi: 10.1046/j.1440-1711.1999.00870.x.


Immune deficiency diseases are often accompanied by abnormalities in one or both arms of the specific immune system. Impairment can often be detected as a decrease in the number of T or B lymphocytes or their products in the circulation, but questions are often asked as to the functional capabilities of T lymphocytes in patients with recurrent infections. Function of T cells has traditionally been measured by their uptake of [3H]- thymidine following stimulation with antigen or mitogen in vitro. However, the ability of carboxyfluorescein succinimidyl ester (CFSE) to label lymphocytes intracellularly and track their mitotic activity by progressive two-fold reduction in fluorescence intensity prompted an alternative methodology based on flow cytometry, an approach which has the advantage of allowing specific gating on particular T cell subsets and simultaneous assessment of activation markers. This method was therefore evaluated for T cell responses to mitogen and antigen. Phytohaemagglutinin-induced blast transformation of CFSE-labelled T cells was reflected by an increase in forward and orthogonal light scatter and a progressive two-fold decrease in CFSE fluorescence intensity. These changes allowed the derivation of various measures of mitotic activity, which correlated well with [3H]-thymidine uptake. Patients with T cell functional deficiencies showed impairment in their responses by both assays, whereas the CFSE-based assay demonstrated that impaired blastogenesis was not simply due to depressed T cell numbers. Concomitant measurement of the activation markers CD69 and CD25 showed that CD69 was rapidly expressed on non-mitotic cells and that this expression was progressively diluted with subsequent rounds of cell division. In contrast, CD25 expression was unaffected by cell cycle, but was expressed in proportion to the PHA dose. Antigen-specific responsiveness to Candida was also assessed using a CFSE-based assay. Initial gating on the relatively minor population of T cells that underwent blast transformation demonstrated progressive twofold dilutions of CFSE intensity in responsive cells. These normal Candida responses, found in patients who had recovered from Candida infection, contrasted with those who had not been infected with Candida or who had chronic recurrent infection, in whom neither blast transformation nor significant mitosis could be detected. Again, there was good correlation with [3H]-thymidine uptake. The CFSE-based assays are equivalent to traditional measures of mitogen- and antigen-specific T cell responsiveness in the diagnostic laboratory and have significant advantages in terms of decreased labour intensiveness, avoidance of radioactivity, the ability to gate on a specific population of lymphocytes and the concomitant measurement of activation markers.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Antigens, CD / biosynthesis
  • Antigens, Fungal / immunology
  • Candida / immunology
  • Cell Division / drug effects
  • Epitopes
  • Evaluation Studies as Topic
  • Flow Cytometry / economics
  • Fluoresceins*
  • Fluorescent Dyes*
  • Humans
  • Immunologic Deficiency Syndromes / diagnosis
  • Immunologic Deficiency Syndromes / immunology*
  • Infant
  • Lymphocyte Activation / drug effects*
  • Phytohemagglutinins / pharmacology
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Succinimides*
  • T-Lymphocytes / cytology
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • T-Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • Thymidine / metabolism


  • 5-(6)-carboxyfluorescein diacetate succinimidyl ester
  • Antigens, CD
  • Antigens, Fungal
  • Epitopes
  • Fluoresceins
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Phytohemagglutinins
  • Succinimides
  • Thymidine