• Flow Cytometry and Cytokine Analysis: Advancing Drug Discovery at Marin Biologic Laboratories

    Scientist working at a flow cytometry machine in Marin Biologic Laboratories, analyzing cytokine data for drug discovery

    Posted on Jun 7, 2024

    Flow Cytometry in Cell-Based Assays and Drug Discovery: A Focus on Cytokine Analysis

    Flow cytometry is a powerful analytical technique that combines principles of fluid dynamics, optics, and fluorescent labeling to analyze individual cells in a population. It has become an indispensable tool in drug discovery due to its ability to provide quantitative, multiparametric data on cells. Its applications are extensive, ranging from assessing cell viability to characterizing immune cell subsets. One area where flow cytometry excels is cytokine analysis, key signaling molecules in the immune system, which play a critical role in cell-based assays and drug discovery.

    Cytokines are small proteins secreted by immune cells, serving as signaling messengers that orchestrate immune responses and inflammation. These molecules are pivotal in regulating various biological processes, making them essential in understanding diseases like cancer, autoimmune disorders, andinfectious diseases. Flow cytometry enables researchers to unravel the complex world of cytokines and their role in health and disease.

    Application 1: Intracellular Cytokine Staining (ICS)

    Intracellular Cytokine Staining (ICS) is a laboratory technique used in immunology and cell biology to detect and quantify the production of specific cytokines within individual immune cells. This method involves stimulating immune cells with various antigens or mitogens to induce cytokine production. After stimulation, the cells are fixed with formaldehyde or similar compounds, and treated to make their membranes permeable, allowing access to the intracellular space. Fluorescently labeled antibodies specific to the cytokines of interest are then introduced, binding to the cytokines produced by the cells. Finally, flow cytometry or other fluorescence-based methods are used to measure the fluorescence intensity of the labeled cytokines within each cell, providing information about the type and quantity of cytokines produced by different immune cell subsets. ICS is valuable for understanding immune responses, evaluating vaccine efficacy, and studying the functional properties of immune cells.

    In drug discovery, Intracellular Cytokine Staining (ICS) is used to assess the impact of potential drugs on immune cell function and cytokine production. It helps researchers screen for compounds that can modulate immune responses, evaluate vaccine efficacy, detect immunotoxicity, and identify cytokine biomarkersassociated with diseases or drug responses. Additionally, ICS is instrumental in target validation for drug development, screening anti-inflammatory compounds, and assessing the effects of immunotherapy drugs. This technique aids in the development of safer and more effective drugs and vaccines targeting various immune-related diseases.

    Application 2: Multiplex Cytokine Assays

    Multiplex Cytokine Assays refer to laboratory techniques that enable the simultaneous detection and quantification of multiple cytokines or other protein markers in a single biological sample. These assays are used in fields such as immunology, cancer research, and drug development to profile the complex interplay of cytokines in biological fluids like blood, serum, or cell culture supernatants. Multiplex assays use various technologies, including microbeads or microarrays, to capture and detect multiple cytokines in a single experiment. This approach provides a comprehensive view of the cytokine profile, allowing researchers to study immune responses, inflammation, and disease processes with greater precision and efficiency.

    Multiplex Cytokine Assays are instrumental in drug discovery for various applications. They help identify cytokine biomarkers associated with diseases, assess the immunomodulatory effects of potential drugs, and evaluate vaccine candidates’ efficacy. Additionally, these assays aid in understanding immune responses in inflammatory diseases and cancer immunotherapy research. They play a vital role in safety assessments by detecting potential immunotoxicity and contribute to optimizing dosing regimens through pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics studies. Overall, multiplex cytokine assays provide a powerful tool for researchers to comprehensively analyze cytokine profiles and advance drug development in diverse therapeutic areas.

    Graphs showing size and complexity differentiation of microbeads and bead (cytokine) identification by fluorescent intensity in a multiplex cytokine assay.
    Fig. 2 This figure shows identified cytokines form a single sample. Left chart shows size and complexity differentiation of the microbeads. Middle and right chart show bead (and cytokine) identification by florescent intensity (APC signal). Thirteen cytokines are clearly measured from a single sample as low as 25 microliters.

    Application 3: Functional Assays for Cytokine Analysis

    Functional Assays for Cytokine Analysis in drug discovery involves studying how drugs influence the functional behavior of immune cells, particularly regarding cytokine production and immune responses. Researchers assess parameters such as cell activity, cytokine secretion, intracellular signaling, and immunomodulatory effects to understand how drug candidates interact with the immune system. This analysis provides critical insights into the therapeutic potential and safety of drugs, aiding in the selection of promising compounds for further development in various disease contexts, including cancer and autoimmune diseases.

    For example in autoimmune disease research, scientists employ flow cytometry to study cytokine production in response to specific autoantigens. They isolate immune cells from patients’ blood and stimulate them with autoantigens. Flow cytometry is then used to detect and quantify cytokine-producing immune cell subsets, such as Th1 or Th17 cells, known for their role in autoimmune responses.


    Flow cytometry’s applications in cell-based assays and drug discovery are vast and transformative. Its role in cytokine analysis is particularly impactful, as it sheds light on the complex interplay between the immune system and diseases. From vaccine development to cancer immunotherapy, flow cytometry-driven cytokine analysis fuels breakthroughs in understanding and treating a wide range of conditions.

    Here in Marin Biologic Laboratories, we pride ourselves on delivering exceptional scientific services, leveraging our cutting-edge Attune NxT Acoustic Focusing flow cytometer. More about our Attune, 4 lasers, up to 14 color combinations, automatic sampling of a 96well plate, more?

    We provide custom cytometry services adapted to the specific needs of the client.

    To learn more about our advanced flow cytometry services and how we can support your research and drug discovery efforts, please visit our Flow Cytometry Services Page.