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UK NEQAS for leucocyte immunophenotyping: the first 10 years


In the past decade, cellular immunophenotyping has become a new discipline in diagnostic haematology and immunology, and is invaluable in the rapid diagnosis of leukaemia and monitoring disease progression in human immunodeficiency virus infected individuals. The introduction of bench top flow cytometers has meant that immunophenotyping is now also used for the quantitation of CD34+ peripheral blood stem cells (PBSCs) to ensure the correct timing and adequacy of haematopoietic progenitor cell harvests. Furthermore, flow cytometry has become an important tool for the counting of leucocytes in blood components after leucocyte depletion. Because this new discipline is now such a major diagnostic and prognostic tool in the clinical arena, its use must be subject to both internal and external quality control. Such a requirement was first recognised as early as 1986 when an Inter-Regional Quality Assessment Scheme (IRQAS) was initiated for laboratories that undertook the immunocytochemical diagnosis of leukaemia using the alkaline phosphates anti-alkaline phosphatase technique. This programme began with around 25 UK laboratories. In 1990, after the introduction of two more programmes (one for leukaemia diagnosis using UV microscopy and latterly flow cytometry, and one for the enumeration of CD4+ T cells) the IRQAS achieved UK National External Quality Assessment Scheme (UK NEQAS) status and changed its title to UK NEQAS for Leucocyte Immunophenotyping. In the past decade the once small IRQAS programme has evolved into the largest international scheme of its kind, providing EQA to over 650 laboratories world wide for leukaemia immunophenotyping, lymphocyte subset analysis, PBSCs, and more recently low level leucocyte counting. Over the years, this EQA programme has highlighted important problems, such as the inappropriate use of fluorochromes and antibody titre, and the identification of effective gating strategies, all of which have contributed directly to the high interlaboratory variations seen in cellular immunophenotyping. Furthermore, particularly in absolute counting of lymphocyte subsets, PBSCs, and the enumeration of low numbers of leucocytes, UK NEQAS for Leucocyte Immunophenotyping programmes have been instrumental in highlighting the differences that occur between single and dual platform flow cytometric technologies. As a result of these findings, UK NEQAS for Leucocyte Immunophenotyping has helped to reduce the variation seen on an interlaboratory basis and enabled greater standardisation both in the UK and internationally. These advances have been attributable to the development, by UK NEQAS for Leucocyte Immunophenotyping, of a unique whole blood stabilising process that ensures the retention of the physical characteristics (both light scatter and antigenic profile) required of cells to ensure successful cellular immunophenotyping. This major technological advancement has enabled the distribution of specimens for EQA purposes on a global scale that have minimal matrix effect and behave in a manner identical to fresh blood for several months after stabilisation.

  • leucocyte immunophenotyping
  • leukaemia
  • human immunodeficiency virus infection
  • flow cytometry
  • guidelines

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