Heat-induced antigen retrieval: mechanisms and application to histochemistry

Prog Histochem Cytochem. 2007;41(3):141-200. doi: 10.1016/j.proghi.2006.09.001. Epub 2006 Dec 11.


Since the introduction of the fluorescence-labeled antibody method by Coons et al. [Immunological properties of antibody containing a fluorescent group. Proc Soc Exp Biol Med 47, 200-2002], many immunohistochemical methods have been refined to obtain high sensitivity with low background staining at both light and electron microscopic levels. Heat-induced antigen retrieval (HIAR) reported by Shi et al. in the early 1990s has greatly contributed to immunohistochemical analysis for formalin-fixed and paraffin-embedded (FFPE) materials, particularly in the field of pathology. Although antigen retrieval techniques including enzyme digestion, treatment with protein denaturants and heating have been considered tricky and mysterious techniques, the mechanisms of HIAR have been rapidly elucidated. Heating cleaves crosslinks (methylene bridges) and add methylol groups in formaldehyde-fixed proteins and nucleic acids and extends polypeptides to unmask epitopes hidden in the inner portion of antigens or covered by adjacent macromolecules. In buffers having an appropriate pH and ion concentration, epitopes are exposed without entangling the extended polypeptides during cooling process, since polypeptides may strike a balance between hydrophobic attraction force and electrostatic repulsion force. Recent studies have demonstrated that HIAR is applicable for immunohistochemistry with various kinds of specimens, i.e., FFPE materials, frozen sections, plastic-embedded specimens, and physically fixed tissues at both the light- and electron-microscopic levels, and have suggested that the mechanism of HIAR is common to aldehyde-fixed and aldehyde-unfixed materials. Furthermore, heating has been shown to be effective for flow cytometry, nucleic acid histochemistry (fluorescein in situ hybridization (FISH), in situ hybridization (ISH), and terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated nick labeling (TUNEL)), and extraction and analysis of macromolecules in both FFPE archive materials and specimens processed by other procedures. In this article, we review mechanism of HIAR and application of heating in both immunohistochemistry and other histochemical reactions.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigens / immunology
  • Antigens / isolation & purification*
  • Histocytochemistry / methods*
  • Hot Temperature*
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry


  • Antigens