Harmonization of the intracellular cytokine staining assay

Cancer Immunol Immunother. 2012 Jul;61(7):967-78. doi: 10.1007/s00262-012-1282-9. Epub 2012 May 22.


Active immunotherapy for cancer is an accepted treatment modality aiming to reinforce the T-cell response to cancer. T-cell reactivity is measured by various assays and used to guide the clinical development of immunotherapeutics. However, data obtained across different institutions may vary substantially making comparative conclusions difficult. The Cancer Immunotherapy Immunoguiding Program organizes proficiency panels to identify key parameters influencing the outcome of commonly used T-cell assays followed by harmonization. Our successes with IFNγ-ELISPOT and peptide HLA multimer analysis have led to the current study on intracellular cytokine staining (ICS). We report the results of three successive panels evaluating this assay. At the beginning, 3 out of 9 participants (33 %) were able to detect >6 out of 8 known virus-specific T-cell responses in peripheral blood of healthy individuals. This increased to 50 % of the laboratories in the second phase. The reported percentages of cytokine-producing T cells by the different laboratories were highly variable with coefficients of variation well over 60 %. Variability could partially be explained by protocol-related differences in background cytokine production leading to sub-optimal signal-to-noise ratios. The large number of protocol variables prohibited identification of prime guidelines to harmonize the assays. In addition, the gating strategy used to identify reactive T cells had a major impact on assay outcome. Subsequent harmonization of the gating strategy considerably reduced the variability within the group of participants. In conclusion, we propose that first basic guidelines should be applied for gating in ICS experiments before harmonizing assay protocol variables.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cytokines / analysis*
  • Cytokines / immunology
  • Flow Cytometry / methods
  • Humans
  • Immunoassay / methods*
  • Immunotherapy, Active / methods
  • Neoplasms / chemistry
  • Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Staining and Labeling / methods


  • Cytokines