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Steps to Better IHC

From patient to pathologist, preparing tissue specimens for histological examination requires care, skill and sound procedures. This guide provides practical advice on best-practice techniques and simple ways to avoid common errors.

Tips for better IHC are highlighted in this week's guide. We hope each step provides a valuable reminder of good histology practice and also helps with troubleshooting when unacceptable results do occur.

Want to see all 101 Steps to Better Histology? Click here to download your copy today!

Step 73 - Use High Quality Sections

 Take particular care to use thin, flat sections that have been thoroughly dried onto the slide. Preferably use charged slides or APES coated slides for IHC.



 Uneven, poorly-adhering sections stain unevenly with variable background staining.



Step 74 - Ensure Optimal Fixation

 Good quality fixation using known and consistent fixation conditions (fixative type, pH, temperature, time) produces the best results. Specimens should be checked prior to processing to determine if further fixation is required.


 Inconsistent fixation conditions, producing under-fixed or over-fixed tissues, produce variable results and make troubleshooting difficult.


Step 75 - Avoid Section Adhesion Problems

 Avoid the use of protein-based section adhesives in the flotation bath (glue, starch, orgelatin), particularly on charged slides.


 Protein-based adhesives can block the surface of the charged slide. This causes inconsistent adhesion and leads to uneven staining due to pooling of IHC reagents beneath lifting sections.


Step 76 - Optimize Wax Removal and Reagent Application

 Take particular care with dewaxing and hydration of sections as well as efficient and uniform distribution of reagents on the specimen surface. This ensures even staining and consistent results.


 Incomplete removal of wax or uneven distribution of reagents on the specimen surface can produce unstained or poorly stained areas in sections.


Step 77 - Avoid Concentration Gradients

 Concentration gradients are avoided by careful application of reagents.


 “We sometimes see strong staining at one end of the slide progressing to weak staining at the other.”


Step 78 - Choose Antibody Carefully

 Choose your primary antibody carefully with regard to its sensitivity and specificity. Be aware that antibodies sold by different suppliers often come from the same source and are repackaged/branded for sale. It is important to use the clone name when assessing an antibody.

 “We buy our antibodies based on price alone.”


Step 79 - Read Specification Sheets

 Know your primary antibody. Always check the specification sheet to determine the suitability of your method for a particular antibody. Specification sheets should be updated when a new batch of antibody is purchased.


 “We don’t have access to the antibody specification sheets in our laboratory.”



Step 80 - Optimize Retrieval Methods

 Choose appropriate unmasking conditions for the primary antibody being used, the tissue being stained and the fixation employed (pH, reagent, reaction conditions).


 The same retrieval technique is used for all primaries on the assumption that there is a successful universal HIER method.


Step 81 - Consider Antibody Cross-reactivity

 Be aware of any potential problems with antibody cross- reactivity (read the specification sheet).


 No attempt is made to explain unexpected positive staining.


Step 82 - Block Endogenous Peroxidase

 For peroxidase-based detection systems, always use a peroxidase-blocking step.



 Non-specific staining is often seen in erythrocytes, granulocytes, monocytes, and in muscle. This is due to incompletely-blocked endogenous peroxidase.



Step 83 - Avoid Background Staining

 Appropriate protein block is always used.


 Generalized background staining is sometimes seen due to ineffective protein block.


Step 84 - Use an Appropriate Detection System

 Choose an appropriate detection system that will provide precise, specific staining with adequate sensitivity.


 “We have been using the same detection system for a long time and see no reason to change. Sometimes our stains are weak and are not as sharp as we would expect.”


Step 85 - Standardize Washing Steps

 Use standardized washing steps throughout (duration, volume and form of agitation). This will ensure consistency of results.


 Results are very variable within runs with the same antibody and between runs on different days. This can be due to different washing techniques used by different operators.


Step 86 - Optimize Counterstaining

 The level of nuclear counterstain is carefully regulated and standardized so as not to obscure positive staining. The counterstain should provide the best possible contrast between chromogen and background tissue elements. An appropriate counterstain is chosen for the chromogen used.



 Nuclear counterstain is sometimes very strong. This can obscure weak specific staining.



Step 87 - Use Appropriate Controls

 Always use appropriate positive and negative controls that are carefully examined to validate results. Internal positive and negative controls are also important and provide an excellent means of ensuring quality assurance in IHC.



 “We only do controls when our method doesn’t seem to work. If we did them for every run people wouldn’t bother to look at them.”



Step 88 - Evaluate Results Carefully

 Know what to look for and where to look when evaluating your test sections and controls after staining.



 If staining is observed in test sections it is assumed the stains are satisfactory.



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This reference document is presented as a service to health care professionals by Leica Biosystems and has been compiled from available literature. Although every effort has been made to report faithfully the information, Leia Biosystems cannot be held responsible for the correctness. This document is not intended to be, and should not be construed as medical advice. For any use, the product information guides, inserts and operation manuals of the various drugs and devices should be consulted. Leica Biosystems and the editors disclaim any liability arising directly or indirectly from the use of drugs, devices, techniques or procedures described in this reference document.

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