When to Use Immunohistochemistry

When to Use Immunohistochemistry

Introduction of IHC

Immunohistochemistry (IHC) has become an indispensable tool in the field of diagnostic medicine, allowing researchers and clinicians to visualize specific proteins within tissue samples. This technique combines principles of immunology and histology to provide valuable information about the distribution, localization, and abundance of proteins in biological tissues. Knowing when to use immunohistochemistry is crucial for obtaining accurate and detailed insights into various diseases and conditions.

Immunohistochemistry staining is used in histopathology to do research or diagnosis.Figure 1. Immunohistochemistry staining is used in histopathology to do research or diagnosis.

Principles of Immunohistochemistry

At its core, immunohistochemistry relies on the specific binding of antibodies to target proteins within tissue sections. The process begins with the preparation of thin tissue slices, commonly known as sections, which are then treated to preserve cellular structures. These sections are incubated with primary antibodies that selectively bind to the protein of interest. Subsequent steps involve adding secondary antibodies, which are conjugated to enzymes or fluorochromes, facilitating the visualization of the protein under a microscope.

When to Use Immunohistochemistry

Differential Diagnosis in Cancer:

Immunohistochemistry plays a pivotal role in the identification and classification of various cancers. By targeting specific markers associated with different types of cancer, IHC aids in distinguishing between tumors that may have similar morphologies. For instance, breast cancer subtypes can be differentiated using markers such as estrogen receptor (ER), progesterone receptor (PR), and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2).

Tissue Profiling and Biomarker Discovery:

Immunohistochemistry is instrumental in studying tissue profiles and discovering potential biomarkers. Researchers can use IHC to identify specific proteins associated with disease progression or response to treatment. This information is valuable for developing targeted therapies and personalized medicine approaches.

Infectious Diseases and Microbial Detection:

Immunohistochemistry is also applied in the detection of infectious agents within tissues. By targeting antigens specific to bacteria, viruses, or parasites, IHC assists in confirming the presence of microbial infections and understanding their impact on host tissues. This is particularly useful in diagnosing diseases with histopathological manifestations.

Neurological Disorders:

The study of neurological disorders often involves the examination of brain tissue. Immunohistochemistry is employed to identify and localize specific proteins related to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Markers like beta-amyloid and tau are commonly used to visualize pathological changes in the brain.

Autoimmune Diseases:

In autoimmune diseases, the immune system mistakenly targets the body's own tissues. Immunohistochemistry can be employed to identify immune cell infiltration and characterize the expression of inflammatory markers in affected tissues. This aids in confirming the diagnosis and understanding the underlying mechanisms of autoimmune conditions.

Developmental Biology and Tissue Morphogenesis:

Immunohistochemistry is a valuable tool in developmental biology, allowing researchers to study the expression patterns of specific proteins during tissue morphogenesis. This insight is crucial for understanding embryonic development and organ formation.

Quality Control in Research and Diagnostics:

Immunohistochemistry serves as a quality control measure in both research and diagnostic settings. By confirming the presence or absence of specific proteins in tissue samples, researchers can validate experimental results and clinicians can ensure the accuracy of diagnostic assessments.


In conclusion, the strategic use of immunohistochemistry has revolutionized the field of diagnostic medicine. Whether for cancer diagnosis, biomarker discovery, infectious disease detection, or studying developmental processes, IHC provides a powerful and versatile approach to visualize and analyze proteins within tissues. The ability to precisely identify and localize specific molecules in biological samples has significantly contributed to our understanding of disease mechanisms and has paved the way for more targeted and personalized approaches to patient care. As technology continues to advance, immunohistochemistry is likely to play an increasingly central role in shaping the future of diagnostic and therapeutic strategies in medicine.

  1. Ramos-Vara JA. Technical aspects of immunohistochemistry. Vet Pathol. 2005, 42(4):405-26.

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