Real-time PCR is becoming a common tool for detecting and quantifying expression profiling of selected genes. Cytokines mRNA quantification is widely used in immunological research to dissect the early steps of immune responses or pathophysiological pathways. It is also growing to be of clinical relevancy to immuno-monitoring and evaluation of the disease status of patients. The techniques currently used for "absolute quantification" of cytokine mRNA are based on a DNA standard curve and do not take into account the critical impact of RT efficiency.
To overcome this pitfall, we designed a strategy using external RNA as standard in the RT-PCR. Use of synthetic RNA standards, by comparison with the corresponding DNA standard, showed significant variations in the yield of retro-transcription depending the target amplified and the experiment. We then developed primers to be used under one single experimental condition for the specific amplification of human IL-1beta, IL-4, IL-10, IL-12p40, IL-13, IL-15, IL-18, IFN-gamma, MIF, TGF-beta1 and TNF-alpha mRNA. We showed that the beta-2 microglobulin (beta2-MG) gene was suitable for data normalisation since the level of beta2-MG transcripts in naive PBMC varied less than 5 times between individuals and was not affected by LPS or PHA stimulation. The technique, we named CyProQuant-PCR (Cytokine Profiling Quantitative PCR) was validated using a kinetic measurement of cytokine transcripts under in vitro stimulation of human PBMC by lipopolysaccharide (LPS) or Staphylococcus aureus strain Cowan (SAC). Results obtained show that CyProQuant-PCR is powerful enough to precociously detect slight cytokine induction. Finally, having demonstrated the reproducibility of the method, it was applied to malaria patients and asymptomatic controls for the quantification of TGF-beta1 transcripts and showed an increased capacity of cells from malaria patients to accumulate TGF-beta1 mRNA in response to LPS.
The real-time RT-PCR technique based on a RNA standard curve, CyProQuant-PCR, outlined here, allows for a genuine absolute quantification and a simultaneous analysis of a large panel of human cytokine mRNA. It represents a potent and attractive tool for immunomonitoring, lending itself readily to automation and with a high throughput. This opens the possibility of an easy and reliable cytokine profiling for clinical applications.