Introduction to Immunocytochemistry


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Immunocytochemistry is a technique used to assess the presence of a specific protein or antigen in cells (cultured cells, cell suspensions) by use of a specific antibody, which binds to it, thereby allowing visualization and examination under a microscope. It is a valuable tool for the determination of cellular contents from individual cells. Samples that can be analyzed include blood smears, aspirates, swabs, cultured cells, cell suspensions, and cytospin. Each sample is treated differently, yet all the methods are interchangeable. There is no one way to prepare these types of cell samples for immunocytochemical analysis.

Cells to be stained can be attached to a solid support to allow easy handling in subsequent procedures. This can be achieved by several methods: adherent cells may be grown on microscope slides, coverslips, or an optically suitable plastic support. Suspension cells can be centrifuged onto glass slides (cytospin), bound to solid support using chemical linkers, or in some cases handled in suspension.

Concentrated cellular suspensions that exist in a low-viscosity medium make good candidates for smear preparations. Dilute cell suspensions existing in a dilute medium are best suited for the preparation of cytospins through cytocentrifugation. Cell suspensions that exist in a high-viscosity medium, are best suited to be tested as swab preparations. The constant among these preparations is that the whole cell is present on the slide surface. For any intercellular reaction to take place, immunoglobulin must first traverse the cell membrane that is intact in these preparations. Reactions taking place in the nucleus can be more difficult, and the extracellular fluids can create unique obstacles in the performance of immunocytochemistry. In this situation, permeablizing cells using detergent (Triton X-100 or Tween-20) or choosing organic fixatives (acetone, methanol, or ethanol) becomes necessary.

HistoGel preparation will overcome the penetration difficulty into cellular nucleus since the cells cover with histogel will be treated as regular tissues for paraffin embedding and sectioning. Therefore, there is a possibility that cell nucleus can be presented for antibody binding.

Antibodies are an important tool for demonstrating both the presence and the subcellular localization of an antigen. Cell staining is a very versatile technique and, if the antigen is highly localized, can detect as few as a thousand antigen molecules in a cell. In some circumstances, cell staining may also be used to determine the approximate concentration of an antigen, especially by an image analyzer.