Also Known As
Immunophenotyping by Flow Cytometry or Immunohistochemistry
Formal Name
This article was last reviewed on
This article waslast modified on 2 March 2022.
At a Glance
Why Get Tested?

To help diagnose and classify a leukaemia or lymphoma; to help guide treatment and monitor response; to detect and evaluate residual cancer cells

When To Get Tested?

When a doctor thinks that you may have leukaemia or lymphoma; when you have been diagnosed with leukaemia or lymphoma, but the specific subtype is unknown; sometimes to evaluate the effectiveness of treatment or to evaluate for recurrent disease

Sample Required?

A blood sample taken from a vein in your arm; sometimes a bone marrow, tissue, or fluid sample collected by your doctor

A bone marrow aspiration and/or biopsy procedure is performed by a doctor or other trained specialist. Fluid samples are obtained through collection of the fluid in a container or by inserting a needle into the body cavity and aspirating a portion of the fluid with a syringe. Tissue is obtained using a biopsy procedure.

Test Preparation Needed?

No test preparation is needed.

On average it takes 7 working days for the blood test results to come back from the hospital, depending on the exact tests requested. Some specialist test results may take longer, if samples have to be sent to a reference (specialist) laboratory. The X-ray & scan results may take longer. If you are registered to use the online services of your local practice, you may be able to access your results online. Your GP practice will be able to provide specific details.

If the doctor wants to see you about the result(s), you will be offered an appointment. If you are concerned about your test results, you will need to arrange an appointment with your doctor so that all relevant information including age, ethnicity, health history, signs and symptoms, laboratory and other procedures (radiology, endoscopy, etc.), can be considered.

Lab Tests Online-UK is an educational website designed to provide patients and carers with information on laboratory tests used in medical care. We are not a laboratory and are unable to comment on an individual's health and treatment.

Reference ranges are dependent on many factors, including patient age, sex, sample population, and test method, and numeric test results can have different meanings in different laboratories.

For these reasons, you will not find reference ranges for the majority of tests described on this web site. The lab report containing your test results should include the relevant reference range for your test(s). Please consult your doctor or the laboratory that performed the test(s) to obtain the reference range if you do not have the lab report.

For more information on reference ranges, please read Reference Ranges and What They Mean.

What is being tested?

Immunophenotyping detects the presence or absence of white blood cell (WBC) antigens. These antigens are protein structures found on the surface or interior of WBCs. Typical groupings of antigens are present on normal WBCs. Atypical but characteristic groupings are seen with specific leukaemias and lymphomas. This allows immunophenotyping to be useful in helping to diagnose and classify these blood cell cancers dependent on the particular pattern of antigens present or absent.

Leukaemias are caused by abnormal types of WBC termed lymphocytes or myeloid (granular) WBC that begin to clone themselves. This leads to monoclonal lymphocytic or myeloid leukaemias. Lymphomas are caused by abnormal lymphocytes that become monoclonal and lead to cancer of the lymph system. The monoclonal cells produced do not fight infections like normal WBCs, and they do not die at a normal rate. They accumulate in the bone marrow or in the lymph node where they originated. As the number of WBC clones increases, they may crowd out and inhibit the production of normal red and white blood cells platelets and the leukaemia or lymphoma cells may be released into the blood stream.

Full blood count (FBC) and differential tests performed on a sample of blood from someone with leukaemia or lymphoma will usually reveal an increased number of white blood cells with a predominance of one type of WBC. These tests may suggest lymphoma or leukaemia, but more information is generally needed to confirm a diagnosis. FBC and differential testing often cannot confirm monoclonal WBCs or detect the subtle differences that may exist between different types of blood cell cancers and they cannot distinguish between the different types of lymphocytes or myeloid WBCs.

With immunophenotyping, a blood, bone marrow, or other sample can be tested to gather this information – information that is then used to identify a specific type of leukaemia or lymphoma and, where possible, used to predict its likely aggressiveness and/or responsiveness to certain treatment. The identifications and predictions made are based upon a "library" of antigen associations and patterns that have been established over time.

Most of the antigens that immunophenotyping detects are identified by a CD (clusters of differentiation) number, such as: CD1a, CD2, CD3, CD4, CD8, CD13, CD19, CD20, CD33, CD61, or CD235. CD numbers represent a naming convention that is based upon international consensus. Several hundred antigens have been identified and received CD designations, but only a small number of these are routinely tested for clinical use. The pattern of expression of multiple CD markers can be unique to particular subtypes of leukaemia or lymphoma.

Flow cytometry is the technique most used for immunophenotyping. It is performed by processing a blood, bone marrow, tissue, or fluid sample to remove red cells, and then adding specific antibodies that have been tagged with fluorescent markers. These antibodies attach to corresponding antigens on the white blood cells when the antigens are present. The WBCs are then drawn up into a single-cell fluid stream under pressure past multiple lasers and detectors and each cell is analysed individually.

The flow cytometer rapidly measures characteristics about each cell, such as its size and granular complexity, and evaluates the type and quantity of fluorescent antigen-antibody complexes that are present. Thousands of cells are evaluated during the test. Results are then graphed and compared to "normal" results and to patterns that are known to be associated with different leukaemias and lymphomas. This process allows the person interpreting the test results to determine the types of WBCs present, their maturity, and to determine the types and quantities of antigens on or in these cells.

Accordion Title
Common Questions
  • How is it used?

    Immunophenotyping is requested primarily to help diagnose and classify blood cell cancers (leukaemias and lymphomas). It may be requested as a follow-up test, when a FBC and differential show an increased number of lymphocytes and the presence of immature WBCs or when there is a significant increase or decrease in the number of platelets (thrombocytosis or thrombocytopenia). Testing is most often performed on blood and/or bone marrow samples, but may also be done on body fluids or other biopsy tissue samples.

    With immunophenotyping, testing proceeds from the general to the specific. Samples are analysed for panels or groups of specific antigens, and then, based upon the initial findings, additional antigens are analysed as deemed necessary. The number of antigens in a panel will vary from laboratory to laboratory, and the specific panel requested will depend upon the person's clinical findings and the doctor's suspicions.

    Testing may sometimes be performed to evaluate the effectiveness of leukaemia or lymphoma treatment and to detect residual or recurrent disease, the continued presence of abnormal cells.

  • When is it requested?

    Immunophenotyping is requested when a person has an increased number of lymphocytes (or sometimes an increase in another type of WBC), an increased or decreased platelet count, or has immature WBCs that are not normally seen in blood. These are usually findings from a FBC and differential, and they may be the first indication that a person might have a blood cell cancer - as symptoms of early leukaemia and lymphoma may be absent, mild, or nonspecific.

    Testing may also be requested when a person has been treated for a leukaemia or lymphoma to evaluate the effectiveness of treatment and detect residual or recurrent disease.

  • What does the test result mean?

    The patterns of antigens that are produced through immunophenotyping require expertise to interpret. A pathologist often one specialising in the study of blood diseases and/or blood cell cancers (Haematologist), will consider the results from the FBC, differential, blood film, bone marrow findings, and immunophenotyping as well as other tests in order to provide a diagnostic interpretation. A laboratory report will typically include specific results from the tests as well as an analysis of what those results mean.

    The markers that are present on the cells as detected by immunophenotyping will help characterise the abnormal cells present (if any) as being, for example, B-lymphocytes or T-lymphocytes. This information is considered together with the affected person's clinical history, physical examination, signs and symptoms as well as all laboratory tests to help make a diagnosis.

    It must be kept in mind that while findings represent comparisons to "normal" findings and to known associations with leukaemias and lymphomas, each person's condition will also be unique. A person may have (or lack) antigens that are typically seen and still be diagnosed with a specific type of leukaemia or lymphoma.

    Abnormal immunophenotype profiles are usually present in: acute myelogenous leukaemia (or acute myeloid leukaemia), acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, B-cell and T-cell non-Hodgkin lymphomas and multiple myeloma.

  • Is there anything else I should know?

    T-lymphocyte subset analysis based on CD3, CD4 and CD8 expression is performed separately to monitor people with HIV/AIDS. For more on this, see the article on CD4 and CD8.

  • Is there a reason to choose one type of sample over another for testing?

    Which sample is tested is up to you and your doctor, but it must be representative of your cancer. If abnormal cells are present in the blood stream, a blood sample is often used for immunophenotyping as it is easy to obtain and less invasive than other collection methods.

  • Can immunophenotyping be done in my doctor's surgery?

    No. The test requires specialised equipment and expertise in interpretation. It is not offered in every laboratory, but many larger hospitals perform the testing or your sample may be sent to a reference laboratory.

  • Can results of testing be used to determine the course of my cancer?

    Only in a general way; depending upon the pattern of antigens present and their associations, a doctor may determine that a cancer is likely to be more aggressive or more resistant to treatment. Each person, their cancer, and the course of that cancer will be unique.

  • Will my antigens change?

    The antigens on specific monoclonal cancer cells will generally remain the same, but the overall population of WBCs is constantly being renewed and replaced. Because of this, immunophenotyping results will always be slightly different – they will reflect the current population of WBCs. The test however can confirm, if the disease relapses, if it is the same clone as before or a new clone. Monitoring progress with immunophenotyping may also pick up relapse earlier than other tests.