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Methods. 2006 Apr;38(4):237-52.

Measurement of cytokines by bioassays: theory and application.

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  • 1Division of Immunology and Endocrinology, The National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, Blanche Lane, South Mimms, Potters Bar, Herts, EN6 3QG, UK.


A large number of cytokines have been characterized, of which several have proved successful in the clinic as biotherapeutic agents for malignant, infectious or autoimmune diseases. As biologically active proteins, they cannot be fully characterized by physicochemical methods alone. Thus, biological assays (bioassays) have become increasingly important for their biological characterization and potency determinations. Since cytokines exert various biological activities in vitro, cultured cell line-based bioassay methods have mainly been developed to quantify potency. Such bioassays, like all biological systems, are inherently variable. Thus, measurement of potency of a particular cytokine must be made relative to a common, stable, reference preparation of the same cytokine to permit valid inter-assay and inter-laboratory comparisons. The development and establishment of appropriate primary reference preparations as World Health Organization (WHO) International standards (IS) and reference reagents (RR) is essential for the standardization of bioassays. This review addresses the practical and statistical considerations for the development of valid bioassays, the preparation and use of WHO IS and RR and, in brief, the types of bioassay methods applicable to potency measurements of individual cytokines. More extensive details for the potency determinations of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), related cytokines, and biotherapeutic anti-TNF-alpha products are provided.

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