Positive immunohistochemistry (IHC) controls are intended to detect problems in both immunostaining and heat-induced epitope retrieval (HIER). However, it is not known what features in a control are important for verifying HIER. Contrary to expectation, the fact that a tissue is formalin-fixed does not necessarily render it suitable in verifying proper HIER. Some tissue controls, for some immunostains, strongly stain even without HIER. Consequently, the control may verify the immunostain but provide little or no information regarding the HIER step. To sort this out, we used formalin-fixed peptide epitopes, a model that provides for precise definition of analyte concentration, epitope composition, and degree of fixation. Our data demonstrate that formalin fixation generates a variable level of protein epitope masking, depending on the epitope recognized by the primary antibody. Some epitopes are highly masked while others hardly at all. Furthermore, the ability of amino acids in the epitope to react with formaldehyde can, at least in part, account for this variability. Most important, we demonstrate the importance of selecting a positive control with a low or intermediate analyte concentration (relative to the immunostain's analytic sensitivity). High analyte concentrations can be insensitive in verifying the HIER step.
Keywords: IHC; antigen retrieval; control; epitope; formaldehyde; immunohistochemistry; immunostain; peptide.