Wiley, Cytometry Part B: Clinical Cytometry, 2(74B), p. 79-90, 2008
A biannual external quality assessment (EQA) scheme for flow cytometric lymphocyte immunophenotyping is operational in the Benelux countries since 1996. We studied the effects of the methods used on assay outcome, and whether or not this EQA exercise was effective in reducing between-laboratory variation. Eighty test samples were distributed in 20 biannual send-outs. Per send-out, 50-71 participants were requested to enumerate CD3+, CD4+, and CD8+ T cells, B cells, and NK cells, and to provide methodological details. Participants received written debriefings with personalized recommendations after each send-out. For this report, data were analyzed using robust multivariate regression. Five variables were associated with significant positive or negative bias of absolute lymphocyte subset counts: (i) platform methodology (i.e., single-platform assays yielded lower CD4+ and CD8+ T-cell counts than did dual-platform assays); (ii) sample preparation technique (i.e., assays based on mononuclear cells isolation yielded lower T-cell counts than those based on red cell lysis); (iii) gating strategies based on CD45 and sideward scatter gating of lymphocytes yielded higher CD4+ T-cell counts than those based on "backgating" of lymphocytes guided by CD45 and CD14); (iv) stabilized samples were generally associated with higher lymphocyte subset counts than nonstabilized samples; and (v) laboratory. Platform methodology, sample stabilization, and laboratory also affected assay variability. With time, assay variability tended to decline; this trend was significant for B-cell counts only. In addition, significant bias and variability of results, independent of the variables tested for in this analysis, were also associated with individual laboratories. In spite of our recommendations, participants tended to standardize their techniques mainly with respect to sample preparation and gating strategies, but less with absolute counting techniques. Failure to fully standardize protocols may have led to only modest reductions in variability of results between laboratories.