[Immunology] Non radioactive Cytotoxic activity assay

alex.mclellan at stonebow.otago.ac.nz alex.mclellan at stonebow.otago.ac.nz
Sat Sep 2 16:13:40 EST 2006

Reply to Rhoda Eniafe originally posted: April 7th 2006.
Subject: [Immunology] Non radioactive Cytotoxic activity assay
Hello David, I have been try to use Calcein-AM in Cytotoxic assay, but I am 
having problem with leakage and inconsistencies with the killing assay, do you 
encounter this kind of problem(s) and what are the steps you take to prevent it. 
Thanks Rhoda Rhoda Eniafe, 
Dear Rhoda,
I just saw your posting on Calcein-AM on the Immunology hypermail list. We 
have recently tried to use a Calcein-AM assay for murine YAC-1 based NK 
killing assay. Although this assay has been working very well for human NK 
killing assays using PBMC + K562, we experienced almost complete dye efflux 
with YAC-1, despite the fact that YAC-1 cell viability was not noticably 
affected by the labelling and subsequent incubation. I have also heard that one 
must be careful choosing the K562 clones, as at least one lab strain needed to be 
replaced for this assay.

Possibly the differences in dye efflux between cell lines relate to the expression 
of transporter proteins, which may quickly pump out the dye. This is surprising 
as I would have thought that the calcein AM would be quickly immobilised 
inside the cell by linkage to intracellular proteins, as I assumed Calcein-AM 
acted in the same manner as CFSE and CMFDA. Nevertheless, we have tried 
many different settings for this assay and can report that in our hands it does not 
work for YAC-1; the 'spontaneous counts' are always as high as the 'total 
counts'. Due to time limitations and the availability of other assays (see below) I 
have not tried other 'cell tracker' dyes in this fluorescent-based assay.

We have always been pleased with Poly Matzinger's (thymidine-based) JAM 
assay for both CTL and NK killing (Matzinger P, J Immunol Methods 
1991;145:85-192). It must have required  an incredible leap of intuition to 
realise that a CTL assay could be based on a measurement of the loss of 
apoptotic cell-derived (fragmented) DNA following washing through glass-fibre 
mats. Its so simple, requires only a low amount of thymidine and it is very 

The JAM assay works well with most murine cell lines tested, as well as splenic 
conA blasts.  We have found that V-bottom, NON-tissue-culture treated 96-well 
plates (e.g. Greiner 651101) give best results for JAM assays as they allow 
better pelleting of the cell mixtures, but thats about our only modification of the 
original method. See original reference and McLellan AD et al.  Blood 2002; 
99: 2084-93 for more information. 

Flow cytometry-based assays also give very good results and there are several 
detailed in the literature.  We normally use these for primary cells (e.g. dendritic 
cells) which cannot be labelled with thymidine. Our version of the flow 
cytometry-based CTL method uses CMFDA (see: McLellan AD et al.  Blood 
2002; 99: 2084-93, or method available on request).
I hope this helps. Perhaps other users will have additional comments on the 
Calcein-AM based assay and other CTL and NK-killing assays.


Alexander D. McLellan, PhD
Senior Lecturer
Dept. Microbiology & Immunology
University of Otago
PO Box 56
720 Cumberland St.
Tel: +64 (3) 479-7728 (office) +64 (3) 479-7147 (lab)
Fax +64 (3) 479-8540

More information about the Immuno mailing list

Send comments to us at biosci-help [At] net.bio.net