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Toxicology. 1997 Dec 31;124(3):179-92.

The sensitivity and specificity of the MTS tetrazolium assay for detecting the in vitro cytotoxicity of 20 chemicals using human cell lines.

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  • 1Department of Safety Science, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.


A number of studies reported that the MTS in vitro cytotoxicity assay is a convenient method for assessing cell viability. The main features found with this assay are its ease of use, accuracy and rapid indication of toxicity. It might well be a useful tool in human health risk assessment if it can be shown that this assay also has an acceptable sensitivity and specificity. This is of interest particularly when exposure to unknown chemical substances requires the rapid detection and evaluation of toxic effects. In this study, the cytotoxicity of 20 chemicals selected from the MEIC priority list was determined with the MTS assay. Since it could be shown that interactions between detection reagents and test chemicals might influence the results of this assay, preliminary experiments were carried out such that artifactual results due to test chemical interference could be excluded from this study. IC50 (50% inhibitory concentration) were established for each test chemical in two human cell lines (F1-73 and HeLa) and later compared with published toxicity data of the same chemicals established with in vitro and in vivo toxicological test systems. Direct comparisons of the data showed a generally lower sensitivity of the MTS assay, which is influenced by biological test organisms, cell type and exposure time. In terms of the specificity of the MTS assay, the results showed a good correlation between data obtained with the MTS assay and published data. The lowest correlation was found when the MTS assay was compared with in vivo studies, however, this finding corresponds well with other published in vitro-in vivo correlations. The highest correlation was found when the MTS assay was compared with test systems using human cell lines or exposure times of 3-24 h. Since the sensitivity of the MTS assay might be increased using different cell types or by extended incubation, this assay is found to provide ideal features of a good measurement system that might also be used for on site toxicological assessments.

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