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BACKGROUND: Natural killer (NK) cells produce multiple cytokines with potential immune regulatory roles. We standardised a whole-blood flow cytometry method to visualise intracellular cytokine production by NK cells for the study of NK cell biology and for clinical monitoring. METHODS: With a three-colour fluorescent labelling technique, specific cytokine production by NK or T cells was visualised directly in whole blood in the same sample after stimulation by phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA) and ionomycin and by electronically gating on the CD3-ve/CD56+ve NK population or on the CD3+/CD56+ NK-T-cell population. RESULTS: Detectable levels of tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) and interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) but not of interleukin-2 (IL-2) or IL-4 were easily observed in NK cells. The visualisation of the cytokine production by NK cells was dependent on the addition of a Golgi transport inhibitor, Brefeldin A. Other known stimuli for NK cells (IL-2 and CD16 monoclonal antibody and incubation with K562, the NK-sensitive cell line) promoted IFN-gamma and TNF-alpha production in NK cells to a lesser extent than did PMA and ionomycin stimulation. CONCLUSIONS: This whole-blood flow cytometric assay appears to be an useful and easy method to examine cytokine production by NK cells and/or by CD3+CD56+ NK-T lymphocytes in patients with relevant diseases.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





72 - 78


Brefeldin A, CD3 Complex, CD56 Antigen, Cytokines, Flow Cytometry, Humans, K562 Cells, Killer Cells, Natural, Monensin, Protein Synthesis Inhibitors, T-Lymphocytes