Detection of intracellular cytokines by flow cytometry

J Immunol Methods. 1993 Feb 26;159(1-2):197-207. doi: 10.1016/0022-1759(93)90158-4.


During the last years it has become increasingly clear that production of most cytokines is not confined to one cell type. Thus, a method to detect cytokines at the single cell level would be a helpful tool to study the contribution of different cells to cytokine production in heterogeneous cell populations. Recently, Sander et al. (1991) demonstrated that it is possible to detect intracellular cytokines by fixation with paraformaldehyde, permeabilization with saponin and subsequent indirect immunofluorescent staining using fluorescence microscopy. Here, we describe a modified method to increase the specific intracellular staining which enables us to detect IFN-gamma, IL-2 and IL-4 producing cells by single laser flow cytometry. The carboxylic ionophore monensin was used to interrupt intracellular transport processes leading to an accumulation of the cytokine in the Golgi complex. This resulting increase of the signal/noise ratio permitted us to detect weakly fluorescent cells such as IL-4 producing cells. While IL-4 was detected in approximately 1-3% of peripheral mononuclear cells from healthy donors, up to 30% of the cells produced IFN-gamma and nearly 50% IL-2 after phorbol ester and ionomycin stimulation. Microscopic and flow cytometric analysis showed a highly significant correlation. Using three-color flow cytometry it was possible to measure intracellular cytokines and cell surface markers simultaneously. Subpopulations of human T cells (e.g., CD4+ CD45R0-) producing a restricted cytokine pattern could be identified by cell surface staining and were characterized by their cytokine production. Consequently, there was no further need for cell sorting to determine cytokine producing subsets in heterogeneous cell populations. We have tested human T cell clones for intracellular cytokine production and found a high concordance to ELISA analysis of the supernatants. We conclude that detection of intracellular cytokines by flow cytometry is a rapid, easy and semiquantitative assay which may be used to study individual cells in heterogeneous populations as well as to screen homogeneous cells for their cytokine pattern. This method is particularly relevant in view of the accumulating evidence of the functional role that subsets of (T) cells may play in various diseases depending on the pattern of cytokines they produce.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cytokines / analysis*
  • Cytokines / biosynthesis
  • Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay
  • Flow Cytometry / methods*
  • Humans
  • Interferon-gamma / analysis
  • Interferon-gamma / biosynthesis
  • Interleukin-2 / analysis
  • Interleukin-2 / biosynthesis
  • Interleukin-4 / analysis
  • Interleukin-4 / biosynthesis
  • Mice
  • Monensin / pharmacology
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / metabolism
  • Tissue Fixation


  • Cytokines
  • Interleukin-2
  • Interleukin-4
  • Interferon-gamma
  • Monensin