Concomitant evaluation of PMA+ionomycin-induced kinase phosphorylation and cytokine production in T cell subsets by flow cytometry

Cytometry A. 2014 Mar;85(3):268-76. doi: 10.1002/cyto.a.22444. Epub 2014 Jan 24.


Methods to detect intracellular kinase signaling intermediates by flow cytometry have been recently developed. Termed "phospho-flow," these methods employ fluorescence-conjugated monoclonal antibodies that recognize phosphorylated epitopes of intracellular kinases, and may be combined with surface phenotypic markers to observe changes in kinase pathways by cellular subset. Effector functions, like cytokine production, are processes intrinsically linked to intracellular signaling and kinase activity within each cell. Methodologies that would simultaneously detect changes to signaling pathways as well as effector responses at the single-cell level would allow for mapping of the functional consequences induced by signaling pathway modifications. However, there are challenges to developing such a combined protocol, relating to the different kinetics of rapid signaling events and the more prolonged time required to induce and observe cytokine responses. In this report, we describe the development of an assay that accommodates differences in protocol conditions and response kinetics, merging phospho-flow cytometry, and intracellular cytokine staining methods into a single experimental protocol. We examined intracellular ERK1/2 phosphorylation and IFN-γ production by CD4+ and CD8+ T cells upon polyclonal stimulation with PMA and ionomycin, while monitoring expression of the cytolytic molecule perforin and the T cell activation marker CD38. We present a method that allows observation of kinase phosphorylation and cytokine production within the same cell after stimuli, while maintaining a stable cellular phenotype. Monitoring of signaling and effector functions in distinct immune subsets provides a platform to investigate and relate intracellular kinase signaling activity to immune cell effector function and phenotype in disease states.

Keywords: CD38; ERK; HLA-DR; ICS; IFN-γ; T cell; immune effector function; perforin; phosflow; phospho-flow intracellular cytokine staining.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Antibodies, Monoclonal / immunology
  • Cytokines / biosynthesis*
  • Cytokines / immunology
  • Flow Cytometry* / methods
  • Humans
  • Ionomycin / pharmacology*
  • Lymphocyte Activation / immunology*
  • Phosphorylation
  • Phosphotransferases / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects*
  • Signal Transduction / immunology
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / drug effects*
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology
  • Tetradecanoylphorbol Acetate / pharmacology*


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal
  • Cytokines
  • Ionomycin
  • Phosphotransferases
  • Tetradecanoylphorbol Acetate