Use of IRDye Infrared Dye-Labeled Optical Probes for Intraoperative Tumor Visualization

A major challenge in cancer surgery is being certain that all the tumor has been removed, including the residual cancer cells not immediately identified with the naked eye after resection. Surgeons need intraoperative methods of imaging tumors to assist them in identifying healthy and diseased tissue. These methods need to be safe and effective. Near-infrared (NIR) fluorescent optical probes may provide a viable solution.

Near-infrared fluorescent optical probes have been used intraoperatively in clinical trials. These NIR dye-conjugated compounds offer several advantages for use in the operating room. NIR probes can be used safely, unlike other imaging modalities that require radiation (such as CT, PET, and SPECT).

IRDye® dye-conjugated optical probes have been shown to be sensitive and biomarker-specific and their fluorescent signal correlates with tumor location observed by other imaging methods and traditional pathology. Because fluorescence from NIR optical probes is invisible to the human eye, visualization of the surgical field of view with white light is unimpeded.

Fluorescence from tissue excised during surgery can be visualized while in the operating room and used to assess whether resection of the tumor is complete. Traditional pathologic examination can then be done for confirmation. Specialized NIR imaging equipment, such as the Pearl® Imaging System, has been used successfully to image tumor sections during an operation.
The following two studies involved the intraoperative use of near-infrared fluorescence optical probes.

IRDye 800CW Dye-Conjugated Probes Provide Verification of Tumor

In this study by van Driel, et al., investigators evaluated the Artemis imaging system, developed in collaboration with the Center for Translational Molecular Medicine. The goal of the study “was to evaluate the Artemis camera in two oncological procedures in which real-time NIR fluorescence could be of added value: (a) radical tumor resection; and (b) detection of sentinel lymph nodes. . .” [1]
For the evaluation of the Artemis imaging system, the investigators used ICG and two IRDye® 800CW infrared dye-conjugated nanobodies. “IRDye 800CW (LI-COR, Lincoln, NE, USA, λex=774 nm, λem=789 nm) was chosen because it is one of two novel fluorophores in the process of clinical translation.” [1] The study assessed the sensitivity and utility of the Artemis system for intraoperative detection of head-and-neck tumors and sentinel lymph nodes in xenograft mouse models. [1]

Fluorescent images were concurrently acquired with the Pearl® Impulse Small Animal Imager (LI-COR). [1] “The Pearl system is expected to be an order of magnitude more sensitive than the Artemis, and therefore, these images serve as a ground truth comparison.” [1]

IRDye 800CW Dye-Labeled Probes Target VEGF and HER2

Research performed by Terwisscha van Scheltinga, et al. used IRDye 800CW dye-labeled antibodies to investigate their use in targeting certain tumors for optical surgical navigation [2]. The group concluded that “NIR fluorescence-labeled antibodies targeting VEGF or HER2 can be used for highly specific and sensitive detection of tumor lesions in vivo. These preclinical findings encourage future clinical studies with NIR fluorescence–labeled tumor-specific antibodies for intraoperative-guided surgery in cancer patients.” [2]

In this preclinical mouse study, fluorescent optical imaging with IRDye 800CW NHS ester coupled to bevacizumab was compared to PET imaging with 89Zr (5 MBq)-labeled bevacizumab or trastuzimab along with a non-specific antibody control, 111In-IgG (1 MBq). [2]

The researchers of this study stated, “IRDye 800CW is a NIR fluorophore with optimal characteristics for clinical use, allowing binding to antibodies when used in its N-hydroxy-succinimide (NHS) ester form. A preclinical toxicity study with IRDye 800CW carboxylate showed no toxicity in doses of up to 20 mg/kg intravenously or intradermally.” [2] They concluded that “In a preclinical setting, NIR fluorescence–labeled antibodies targeting VEGF or HER2 allowed highly specific and sensitive detection of tumor lesions in vivo.” [2]

IRDye 800CW dye-conjugated optical probes are currently involved in over a dozen clinical trials for a wide range of different cancers. These studies demonstrate the use of IRDye probes for optical surgical navigation. Several studies have employed the use of dual-labeled probes showing the strength of combining near-infrared fluorescence with other imaging modalities.

Examples of optical probe applications are detailed on Optical Probe Development and Molecular Activity Measurement web pages.

Do you have questions about how IRDye infrared dye-labeled probes could be used in your research or need help conjugating your optical probe? If so, please contact LI-COR Custom Services.


  1. van Driel, P.B.A.A., et al. Characterization and Evaluation of the Artemis Camera for Fluorescence-Guided Cancer Surgery Mol Imaging Biol (2015) 17:413Y423. doi: 10.1007/s11307-014-0799-z
  2. Terwisscha van Scheltinga, A.G.T., et al. Intraoperative Near-Infrared Fluorescence Tumor Imaging with Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor and Human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor 2 Targeting Antibodies J Nucl Med 2011; 52:1778–1785. doi: 10.2967/jnumed.111.092833.

What Type of Western Blotter are You?

How would you describe your Western blotting abilities and results?

Do you know how to get yourself out of pretty much any Western blotting jam? Do your blots always look perfect like this?

Now, THAT’S a nice blot. And, it looks like you are a star at multiplexing with near-infrared fluorescence.

Just be sure you are detecting in the combined linear range for your target and your internal loading control. (Not sure what a combined linear range is? Check out this protocol.)

Or, do you wish SOMEONE would just tell you what you are doing wrong because your blots look more like this?

You are PRETTY sure that a Western blot is not supposed to look like a splat of paint or a Rorschach test (although. . . .).

Wherever you are at in your Western blot experience journey, find out your Western blotting type by taking this quiz.

Let’s see if you are really a Western Blotting All-Star or a Western Blotting Newcomer in need of some friendly (and helpful) expert advice!

Create a Customized List of Journal Articles that Reference LI-COR Imaging Systems

Finding out how other researchers have used LI-COR® imaging systems and reagents can really help when you are trying to decide on which system is best for your lab. With over 10,000 journal citations, the Odyssey® Imaging Systems have a long, proven track record in life science research.

There is now a tool that you can use to customize a list of peer-reviewed references specific to your research and application interests. You can access this new Publications Database through pages on our website, such as Products > Imaging System pages (for example, Odyssey CLx > Who’s Using it) and Application pages (for example, Quantitative Western Blots > Publications) or through the link in the footer, which is on the bottom of all web pages.

You can filter results by four categories. Select at least one filter. Each filter you select narrows the search by making the resulting set a combination of all filter parameters.

Let’s go over the various options you can use to create your customized publications list.

You can filter by Research Area. The list of research areas includes 72 different categories. Choose a single, or multiple, area(s). Remember, the more you choose, the narrower your search will be.

You can filter by Instrument.

You can filter by Application.

You can filter by Country. This is the country of the corresponding author’s email address.

For example, if you select “Apoptosis” in Research Area, “Odyssey CLx” in Instrument, and “Germany” in Country, you will receive a list of three publications that specifically reference apoptosis, the Odyssey CLx, and publications where the corresponding author is from Germany.

You can sort the columns in the results by clicking on the corresponding header. You can also show 10, 25, 50, or all entries. If the list does not suit your needs, you can Clear All Filters and start over.

If the number of publications returned is large, you can refine the set using keywords, such as your protein or disease of interest, separated by a space. Results displayed will contain all the terms in the search field. You can also use the digital object identifier (DOI) prefix unique to each publishing group to search for publications in specific journals. For example, use 10.1074 for the Journal of Biological Chemistry and other ASBMB journals.

We regularly add publications to the database, so check back frequently to see who is using LI-COR imaging systems to get published, and how they are using the instrument in their research.

Create your own customized publication list and, if you have feedback on how to improve this tool, please click on the Feedback button and let us know!

Technical and Biological Replicates are Critical for Quantitative Western Blot Success

Replicates improve the reproducibility and accuracy of experimental findings. They are important because they confirm the validity of observed changes in protein levels. Without replication, it is impossible to know if an effect is real or simply an artifact of experimental noise or variation, which can directly affect conclusions made about experimental findings.

There are two types of replicates: biological and technical. Each type addresses different questions1,2,3. Peer-reviewed journals, such as the Journal of Biological Chemistry, have specific guidelines in regards to replicates.

“Authors must state the number of independent samples (biological replications) and the number of replicate samples (technical replicates) and report how many times each experiment was repeated.”
Instructions for Authors. The Journal of Biological Chemistry

Technical vs. Biological Replicates: Which Do You Need to Include?

Technical Replicates

Technical replicates are repeated measurements used to establish the variability of a protocol or assay, and determine if an experimental effect is large enough to be reliably distinguished from the assay noise1. Examples may include loading multiple lanes with each sample on the same blot, running multiple blots in parallel, or repeating the blot with the same samples on different days.

Figure 1. Technical replicates help identify variation in technique. For example, lysate derived from a mouse and treated under a set of experimental conditions (A, B, C), then run and measured independently three times, will help identify variation in technique.

Technical replicates evaluate the precision and reproducibility of an assay, to determine if the observed effect can be reliably measured. When technical replicates are highly variable, it is more difficult to separate the observed effect from the assay variation. You may need to identify and reduce sources of error in your protocol to increase the precision of your assay.

Technical replicates do not address the biological relevance of the results.

Biological Replicates

Biological replicates are parallel measurements of biologically distinct and independently generated samples, used to control for biological variation and determine if the experimental effect is biologically relevant. The effect should be reproducibly observed in independent biological samples. Demonstration of a similar effect in another biological context or system can provide further confirmation. Examples include analysis of samples from multiple mice rather than a single mouse, or from multiple batches of independently cultured and treated cells.

Figure 2. Biological replicates derived from independent samples help capture random biological variation. For example, lysates derived from 3 mice and treated under the same set of experimental conditions (A, B, C), will help identify variation resulting from the biology.

To demonstrate the same effect in a different experimental context, the experiment might be repeated in multiple cell lines, in related cell types or tissues, or with other biological systems.

An appropriate replication strategy should be developed for each experimental context. Several recent papers discuss considerations for choosing technical and biological replicates1,2,3.

This protocol, Quantitative Western Blot Analysis with Replicates, will guide you in choosing and incorporating technical and biological replicates in your experimental design for reproducible data. It includes calculations for replicate analysis as well as how to interpret the data you obtain.

Additional Resources to Help You Get the Best Data

LI-COR has additional resources that you can use as you plan your quantitative Western blot strategy.


  1. Naegle K, Gough NR, Yaffe MB. Criteria for biological reproducibility: what does “n” mean? Sci Signal. 8 (371): fs7 (2015).
  2. Blainey P, Krzywinski M, Altman N. Replication: quality is often more important than quantity. Nat Meth. 11(9): 879-80 (2014).
  3. Vaux DL, Fidler F, Cumming G. Replicates and repeats – what is the difference and is it significant? EMBO reports 13(4): 291-96 (2012).

Why Can Western Blot Data be Difficult to Reproduce?

Western blot analysis is susceptible to error and variation in more ways than one, whether it be the technique itself, or the reagents, samples, and materials used in the assay. While it is impossible to eliminate all variation and error, by accounting for its sources and following good Western blotting practices, you can minimize variation and error and generate accurate and replicable results.

Let’s consider some common sources of variation, and best practices to minimize their impact on the accuracy of results.

Cell line and cell culture practices

Cell lines, the very source of samples for Western blotting, can introduce error and variability in assay and analysis. There is a risk of cross-contamination between different cell lines and infection with bacteria, viruses, or other agents, when working in shared cell culture hoods and incubators1. Repeated propagation of cell lines can also result in a cell line drift, causing changes in the genetic makeup of cells, and possibly also in protein expression1. Cell culture media, serum, reagents, and glassware have an impact on the growth of cells and the overall experimental conditions, potentially affecting assay results1,3.

What can you do?
For human cell lines, use cells authenticated using Short Tandem Repeat (STR) profiling, and check animal-derived cell lines for mycoplasma and viral contamination1. Develop a growth profile of your cell line before initiating experiments, so you know when to harvest cells, perform assays, or start a fresh culture3. Microscopic assessment and analysis of expression data also helps identify any changes in cell behavior3.

Primary antibodies

Western blotting results depend heavily upon the quality of primary antibodies used. Variability between batches, as well as cross-reactivity of the antibody with different isoforms of the target or entirely different protein targets can lead to non-specific binding and background signal, yielding results that are difficult to replicate4.

What can you do?
Antibody validation for confirming binding and specificity of antibodies to the protein of interest is essential prior to their use in assays. Confirm antibody data such as batch and lot numbers, cross-reactivity, and characterization assays from antibody vendors4. By including positive and negative controls in your experiment, you can check for any non-specific binding of the antibody to other proteins present in your samples4. Use the antibodies in applications recommended by the vendor, as functionality in different types of experiments (e.g., Western blots and immunofluorescence applications) might vary3.

Loading and normalization

Measuring changes in the expression levels of proteins is a relative assessment. So, if you inadvertently load unequal amounts of sample across wells and compare protein levels, it can throw your results off. Similarly, normalizing data to a single housekeeping protein whose expression may have been affected by experimental treatments, or normalizing without validating the housekeeping protein antibody expression, will also introduce error in your analysis.

What can you do?

Check for equal sample loading across lanes and uniform housekeeping protein expression using a loading indicator.

For an even more airtight analysis, consider normalizing data to total protein loading (use this protocol for normalization using REVERT™ Total Protein Stain). In contrast to a single housekeeping protein, total protein normalization reduces the impact of biological variability on data, by accounting for all proteins loaded in the lane and allows you to evaluate the efficiency of transfer prior to the immunodetection.

Range of detection

Are you comparing data captured at different exposures or on separate blots? Think about some of the sources of variability in this comparison: experimental conditions, reagents used, and exposure times. Can you have confidence in your comparative analysis?

What can you do?

To accurately detect and compare signals from both protein targets and internal loading controls (whether a housekeeping protein, modified forms of a protein, or total protein) you need to measure data from the same blot, within the combined linear detection range of the assay. The linear range is where signal intensities detected by the imaging system are proportional to protein abundance. So how do you determine the combined linear range? Create a dilution series to determine the linear response range of both the target protein and internal loading control. For quantitative analysis load sample amounts that provide a linear response within the range. This protocol will guide you through the steps.


You are eager to see the results of your experiment, but depending upon how you choose to visualize them, you could be introducing a whole new set of variables into your data. X-ray film has a very narrow detection range in which its response to light is linear5. Signals above and below this range cannot accurately be documented on film, so band intensities are not proportional to light emitted during the chemiluminescence reaction. In addition, the enzymatic reaction signal varies with substrate incubation time, type, amount, and temperature, to name a few. Acquiring accurate signals within the combined linear range of film and the enzymatic chemiluminescence reaction is just that much more challenging.

What can you do?
Consider detection using near-infrared fluorescence imaging. Digital imaging provides a much wider dynamic range compared to film. Direct detection using dye-conjugated antibodies eliminates variation of the enzymatic reaction. As a result, you can acquire signals within the combined linear range, proportional to the amount of protein present on your blot.

Data analysis

Beware of conclusions based on data from a single experimental run. Variation in the biology of the experimental system, as well as in assay, technique, and equipment needs to be accounted for using replicate samples.

Similarly, analyzing data images using unsupported software programs leaves your data vulnerable to error. Certain image enhancement features like gamma correction or conversion to other file formats can cause non-linear adjustments to the image and/or loss of data depth needed for accurate analysis.

What can you do?
Include both technical and biological replicate samples in your experimental design. Technical replicates are repeated measurements of the sample, representing independent measurements of the noise in equipment and technique6. For instance, loading multiple wells with the same amount of sample or repeating blots with the same samples on different days are a few ways to take variation in technique into consideration. On the other hand, biological replicates capture random biological variation by measuring responses in biologically distinct samples6. So, you could repeat your assay with independently generated samples taken from different cell or tissue types, to confirm that your observations are not an irreproducible fluke. See more tips on replicate samples.

Technical replicates help identify variation in technique.

Biological replicates derived from independent samples capture random biological variation.

As for data analysis, always use software programs that are compatible with your imaging system and designed for your specific assay. Minimize image processing, as not all software packages indicate whether the original data is modified. Avoid converting and transferring files between software programs.

Now that you know some of the experimental factors that could be influencing your Western blot results, how will you implement these best practices in your protocols, detection, and data analysis? Get a refresher on the basics of Western blotting at Lambda U™.


  1. Freedman LP, Venugopalan G, Wisman R. Reproducibility2020: Progress and priorities. F1000Research. 2017;6:604. doi:10.12688/f1000research.11334.1.
  2. Cell Line Authentication. The Global Biological Standards Institute™. Web. Accessed December 20, 2017.
  3. Baker M. Reproducibility: Respect your cells! Nature 537, 433–435; 15 September 2016. doi:10.1038/537433a
  4. Baker M. Reproducibility crisis: Blame it on the antibodies. Nature 521, 274–276; 21 May 2015. doi:10.1038/521274a
  5. Laskey, R.A. Efficient detection of biomolecules by autoradiography, fluorography or chemiluminescence. Methods of detecting biomolecules by autoradiography, fluorography and chemiluminescence. Amersham Life Sci. Review 23:Part II (1993).
  6. Blainey P, Krzywinski M, and Altman N. (2014) Points of Significance: Replication. Nature Methods 11(9): 879-880. doi:10.1038/nmeth.30

Tracing the Footsteps of the Data Reproducibility Crisis

Have you found it challenging to replicate the results of your own or somebody else’s experiments? You are not alone. A member survey conducted by the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) revealed that out of 869 respondents, 72% had trouble reproducing the findings of at least one publication1. In a more comprehensive study by the Nature Publishing Group, over 60% and 70% of researchers surveyed in medicine and biology, respectively, reported failure in replicating other researchers’ results2. And out of the 1,576 scientists surveyed in various fields, 90% agreed that there is a reproducibility crisis in scientific literature2.

In case you are wondering, both surveys were conducted between 2014 and 2015, and there is a growing consensus about data reproducibility challenges. But how did we get here?

Beginnings of a Crisis

In 2011, scientists at Bayer HealthCare in Germany published an article in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, reporting inconsistencies between published data and in-house target validation studies3. Out of the 67 target identification and validation projects they had analyzed for data reproducibility, 43 had shown inconsistencies and had resulted in the termination of projects3. Through this review, the Bayer researchers attempted to raise awareness about the challenges in reproducing published data and called for confirmatory studies prior to investing in downstream drug development projects3.

Close on the heels of Bayer’s report, researchers at Amgen described their attempts at replicating the results of published oncology studies, in a 2012 Nature commentary4. While reporting success at confirming the findings of only 6 out of the 53 landmark publications reviewed, the Amgen scientists outlined recommendations to improve replicability of pre-clinical studies4.

These publications spurred data reproducibility conversations within the biomedical research community, giving way to a wave of initiatives to analyze and address the problem.

Data Reproducibility Gaining Momentum

Reproducibility of research data depends, in part, on the specific materials used in the experiment. But how often are research reagents referenced in sufficient detail? A study found that 54% of resources reported in publications, including model organisms, antibodies, reagents, constructs, and cell lines, were not uniquely identifiable5. In order to promote proper reporting of research materials used, the NIH has recommended that journals expand or eliminate the limits on the length of methods sections17.

When you had challenges reproducing data in your lab, were you able to identify what caused them? In another publication, study design, biological reagents and reference materials, laboratory protocols, and data analysis and reporting were attributed as the four primary causes of experimental irreproducibility6. In effect, an estimated 50% of the U.S. preclinical research budget, or $28 billion a year, was reportedly being spent on data that is not reproducible6.

Based on feedback from researchers in academia, biopharmaceutical companies, journal editors, and funding agency personnel, the Global Biological Standards Institute (GBSI) developed a report highlighting the need for a standards framework in life sciences7.

Changes Instituted by Granting Agencies and Policy Makers

In the face of data reproducibility challenges, government agencies that fund research, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) developed action plans to improve the reproducibility of research8,9. The NIH also revised criteria for grant applications8. That means researchers will need to report details of experimental design, biological variables, and authenticate research materials when applying for grants8.

The Academy of Medical Sciences (UK), the German Research Foundation (DFG), and the InterAcademy Partnership for Health (IAP for Health) identified specific activities to improve reproducibility of published data10,11,12.

Recommendations on Use of Standards, Best Practices, and Reagent Validation

Among the organizations championing the development of standards and best practices to improve the reproducibility of biomedical research are:

  • Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) with recommendations regarding the use of mouse models and antibodies13
  • American Statistical Association’s (ASA) report on statistical analysis best practices when publishing data14
  • Global Biological Standards Institute with recommendations regarding the additional standards in life science research; antibody validation and cell line authentication groups in partnership with life science vendors, academia, industry, and journal publishers15
  • Science Exchange’s efforts at validation of experimental results16

Changes to Publication Guidelines

Journal groups have been revising author instructions and publication policies to encourage scientists to publish data that is robust and replicable. That means important changes regarding reporting of study design, replicates, statistical analyses, reagent identification and validation, are coming your way.

  • The NIH and journal publishing groups including Nature, Science, Cell, Journal of Biological Chemistry, Journal of Cell Biology, and Public Library of Science (PLOS), among others, have developed and endorsed principles and guidelines for reporting preclinical research. These guidelines include statistical analysis, transparency in reporting, data and material sharing, refutations, screening for image-based data (e.g. Western blots) and unique identification of research resources (antibodies, cell lines, animals)17
  • The Center for Open Science (COS) developed Transparency and Openness Promotion (TOP) guidelines framework for journal publishers. Signatories include journal publication groups like AAAS, ASCB, Biomed Central, F1000, Frontiers, Nature, PLOS, Springer, and Wiley, among others18

Emphasis on Training

To train scientists in proper study design and data analysis, the NIH has developed training courses and modules19. A number of universities also offer courses in study design and statistics20.

In the face of revisions to grant applications and publication guidelines, use of standards, reagent validation, and need for consistent training in methods and technique, changes are coming your way. Is your lab prepared? Let us help you get there. See what has changed for publishing Western blot data and get your entire lab trained to generate consistent and reproducible Western blot data at Lambda U™.


  1. How Can Scientists Enhance Rigor in Conducting Basic Research and Reporting Research Results? American Society for Cell Biology. Web. Accessed October 6, 2017.
  2. Baker M. 1,500 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility. Nature (News Feature) 533, 452-454.
  3. Prinz F, Schlange T, Asadullah K. 2011. Believe it or not: how much can we rely on published data on potential drug targets? Nat Rev Drug Discov 10, 712-713. doi:10.1038/nrd3439-c1
  4. Begley GC, Ellis LM. 2012. Drug development: Raise standards for preclinical cancer research. Nature 483, 531-533. doi:10.1038/483531a
  5. Vasilevsky NA, Brush MH, Paddock H, et al. On the reproducibility of science: unique identification of research resources in the biomedical literature. Abdullah J, ed. PeerJ. 2013;1:e148. doi:10.7717/peerj.148.
  6. Freedman LP, Cockburn IM, Simcoe TS (2015). The Economics of Reproducibility in Preclinical Research. PLOS Biology 13(6): e1002165.
  7. The Case for Standards in Life Science Research – Seizing Opportunities at a Time of Critical Need. The Global Biological Standards Institute. Web. Accessed November 16, 2017.
  8. Enhancing Reproducibility through Rigor and Transparency. National Institutes of Health. Web. Accessed October 6, 2017.
  9. A Framework for Ongoing and Future National Science Foundation Activities to Improve Reproducibility, Replicability, and Robustness in Funded Research. December 2014. National Science Foundation. Web. Accessed October 6, 2017.
  10. Reproducibility and Reliability of Biomedical Research. The Academy of Medical Sciences (UK). Web. Accessed October 6, 2017.
  11. DFG Statement on the Replicability of Research Results. The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG – German Research Foundation). Web. Accessed October 6, 2017.
  12. A Call for Action to Improve the Reproducibility of Biomedical Research. The InterAcademy Partnership for Health. Accessed October 6, 2017.
  13. Enhancing Research Reproducibility: Recommendations from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Web. Accessed October 6, 2017.
  14. Recommendations to Funding Agencies for Supporting Reproducible Research. American Statistical Association. Web. Accessed October 6, 2017.
  15. Reproducibility2020. The Global Biological Standards Institute™. Web. Accessed October 6, 2017.
  16. Validation by the Science Exchange network. Science Exchange. Web. Accessed November 16, 2017.
  17. Principles and Guidelines for Reporting Preclinical Research. Rigor and Reproducibility. National Institutes of Health. Web. Accessed November 16, 2017.
  18. Transparency and Openness Promotion (TOP). Center for Open Science. Web. Accessed October 6, 2017.
  19. Training. Rigor and Reproducibility. National Institutes of Health. Web. Accessed November 16, 2017.
  20. Freedman LP, Venugopalan G and Wisman R. Reproducibility2020: Progress and priorities [version 1; referees: 2 approved]. F1000Research 2017, 6:604 (doi:10.12688/ f1000research.11334.1)

10 Tips for Reproducible Odyssey® Western Blots

When your results depend upon reproducible measurements of protein expression changes, minimize error and variation to maximize the accuracy of your data. Get the most out of your Odyssey Imaging System with these 10 tips for robust and replicable analysis of Western blots.

1. Use the Right Membrane

It is important that you consider a few factors before choosing the appropriate membrane for your experiment. Both PVDF and nitrocellulose membranes are available in two different pore sizes, 0.2 µm for proteins less than 20 kDa, and 0.45 µm for most Western blotting applications.

Consider other experimental conditions, as well, such as:

Condition PVDF Membranes Nitrocellulose
150-200 µg of protein/cm2 which
might result in increased background signal
80-100 µg of protein/cm2
Less fragile and a better choice for
experiments that require stripping and re-probing
of membrane
PVDF membranes must be pre-wetted with
methanol, but can be used with methanol-free
transfer buffer
Transfer buffer must contain methanol
Detection Low-fluorescence PVDF must be used
for near-infrared fluorescence detection to
avoid high background resulting from
autofluorescence of standard PVDF membranes.
It is recommended that you cut a small sample
of membrane and image it both wet and dry,
to check for autofluorescence and background.
All nitrocellulose membranes are
suitable for near-infrared detection

LI-COR has evaluated and compared different transfer membranes types, and overall, nitrocellulose membranes offer the lowest membrane autofluorescence.

Figure 1. Membrane autofluorescence from PVDF affects Western blot performance. Transferrin was detected by Western blotting, using various vendors and brands of PVDF membrane. Blots were imaged with the Odyssey Classic Infrared Imaging System in both the 700 and 800 nm channels.

2. Dry Membrane after Transfer

Once the transfer of proteins from the gel to membrane has been completed, it is recommended that you air-dry the membrane, before proceeding to the blocking step. By letting the membrane air-dry, you are essentially allowing the protein to get “fixed” in place. This helps ensure that proteins are not lost from the membrane during the subsequent processing steps like washes, blocking, and probing. It will also help retain low abundance proteins, giving you better sensitivity. Also, proteins at higher concentrations will not smear when the membrane is allowed to air-dry.

3. Optimize Blocking Conditions

The right blocking buffer can greatly enhance sensitivity of near-infrared Western blots by reducing background interference, promoting specific binding of primary antibody to target, and yielding high signal-to-noise ratios with minimal non-specific signals. However, there isn’t a universal blocking buffer suitable for all experimental conditions, so optimization is important.

Blocking reagents can influence antibody binding and specificity. For example, milk-based blockers can cause high background when using anti-goat antibodies, streptavidin-biotin based detection, or when probing phosphorylated target proteins.

Also consider the buffering system used in the experiment. Washing, blocking, and antibody dilutions must be performed using either Phosphate Buffered Saline (PBS) or Tris Buffered Saline (TBS) consistently throughout the protocol.

Additionally, exposure to detergent should be avoided until the blocking step is complete, as it may cause high membrane background.

Figure 2. Effect of various blocking agents on detection of pAkt and total Akt in Jurkat lysate after stimulation by calyculin A. Total and phosphorylated Akt were detected in calyculin A-stimulated (+) and non-stimulated (-) Jurkat lysate at 10 µg; 5 µg; and 2.5 µg/well. Blots were probed with pAkt Rabbit mAb (Santa Cruz P/N sc-135650) and Akt mAb (CST P/N 2967) and detected with IRDye® 800CW Goat anti-Rabbit IgG (LI-COR P/N 926-32211) and IRDye 680RD Goat anti-Mouse IgG (LI-COR P/N 926-68070); scanned on Odyssey® CLx (auto scan 700 & 800). pAkt (green) is only detected with Odyssey Blocking Buffer (TBS).

For more optimization tips, see the Odyssey Blocking Buffer optimization protocol.

4. Optimize the Dilution of Secondary Antibodies

Using secondary antibodies at the right concentration is critical to Western blotting success. Higher dilutions provide lower membrane background and fewer background bands. On the other hand, too much secondary antibody can result in strong bands and signal saturation. Therefore, it is recommended that you optimize the dilution range for your IRDye® 800CW and IRDye 680RD conjugated secondary antibodies within 1:10,000 to 1:40,000. Ideally, begin with a 1:20,000 dilution and then optimize according to primary antibody and preferred appearance of the blot.

5. Validate Primary Antibodies

As primary antibodies bind directly to the molecule of interest to enable detection, it is critical to ensure that the antibodies are specific and bind with high affinity to the target (and isoform) of interest. A positive and negative control sample can identify non-specific interactions of the antibody. In addition, you may want to knockout the expression of your target to see if the antibody binds to any other proteins within the sample. Treating cells with growth factors that induce or inhibit expression of the target, or using a blocking peptide to inhibit binding of the antibody to the target protein are some of the other methods used to confirm antibody specificity.

When performing validation assays, do not use purified or overexpressed target protein. Also, examine different cell lines or tissues with known levels of expression of the target protein.

6. Determine the Combined Linear Range of Detection

For accurate quantitation of Western blots, it is essential that both the target protein and the internal loading control (whether total protein, housekeeping protein, or modified form of the target) are measured within the combined linear range of detection.

First, the linear range for target and internal loading control need to be determined separately. This can be performed using a dilution series of the sample and the appropriate internal loading control. The individual loading ranges obtained can then be combined to identify a loading amount within the combined linear range of detection. See the complete step-by-step protocol.

7. Use Proper Experimental Controls

Control samples are essential for generating reliable and reproducible data. Including both a positive and a negative control in your experimental design will serve as helpful checkpoints for accurate target detection. A positive control will help you confirm your antibody specificity to target within the experimental conditions. On the other hand, a negative control will help you identify any non-specific binding. Most journals recommend including a molecular size marker in Western blot data images submitted for publication. Markers aid in identifying and confirming the target within the expected molecular weight range.

“Positive and negative controls, as well as molecular size markers, should be included on each gel and blot…”
– Image Integrity, Authors and Referees, Nature; Author Guidelines, EMBO Molecular Medicine

8. Normalize Data to Internal Loading Controls

Normalization corrects for sample-to-sample and lane-to-lane variation by measuring data with reference to internal loading controls. If you do not normalize your samples, any observed changes in band intensity could be a result of error in sample preparation, loading, transfer, or actual experimental conditions.

Housekeeping proteins that have been validated for stable expression, total protein loading amounts, or modified forms of target proteins (e.g., phosphorylated and total) can all be used as internal loading controls. Housekeeping proteins or modified forms of target protein use a single or a few endogenous proteins as reference. On the other hand, total protein control takes into account the sum total of all proteins loaded within the lane. Learn more about Western blot normalization.

9. Perform Measurements in Replicates

Taking replicate measurements of experimental data are necessary for accurate, reliable results. Both technical and biological replicates help address different questions about data reproducibility.

Technical replicates are repeated measurements of the same sample that represent independent measures of the noise associated with protocols or equipment1. For example, by loading replicate lanes for each sample on a blot or repeating blots with same samples on different days, you can address the reproducibility of the technique.

Biological replicates are parallel measurements of biologically distinct samples that capture biological variation within the system1. For example, using samples derived from different cell types, tissue types, or organisms, you can evaluate if similar results can be observed, or whether your finding is an anomaly. This protocol – Quantitative Western Blot Analysis with Replicate Samples – will help you define and design your experimental replicate strategy.

10. Use Software That Does Not Modify Raw Data

Accurate data measurement and analysis is the foundation of your research findings. Image file modifications using unsupported image editing and analysis software programs can compromise the integrity of your data. Ensure that you are using a software program designed to analyze the results of your Western blot experiments that is compatible with your detection system, like Image Studio Software.

Image Studio only affects how raw data pixels are mapped to the screen, leaving your original experimental results secure. With data capture and analysis integrated in a single interface, you can keep variability from file transfers and digital adjustments from affecting your data.

Keep these ten tips for near-infrared fluorescent Western blots handy. Download this wallpaper for your computer or this flyer for quick references.

1. Blainey P, Krzywinski M, and Altman N. (2014) Points of Significance: Replication. Nature Methods 11(9): 879-880. doi:10.1038/nmeth.30

Validate Housekeeping Proteins Before Using Them for Western Blot Normalization

Why is it important to validate housekeeping proteins before using them for Western blot normalization?

Housekeeping proteins (HKPs) are routinely used for Western blot normalization. For common HKPs (such as actin, tubulin, or GAPDH), stable protein expression is generally assumed. However, expression of several HKPs is now known to vary in response to certain experimental conditions, including cell confluence, disease state, drug treatment, and cell or tissue type. Because HKP normalization uses a single indicator of sample loading, changes in HKP expression will introduce error and may alter data analysis and interpretation.

In the instructions to authors for the Journal of Biological Chemistry, they state:

Before using a housekeeping protein for Western blot normalization, it is critical that you validate that its expression is constant across all samples and unaffected by your experimental context and conditions, especially if you have plans to publish.

How do I validate housekeeping proteins?

The Housekeeping Protein Validation Protocol gives you step-by-step instructions on how to validate a housekeeping protein for use as an internal loading control. It also provides information on how to analyze the data in Image Studio™ software (download free Image Studio Lite) and how to quantitate housekeeping proteins. Detailed calculations and information on how to interpret the data will allow you to be confident in your validation process – and make the right decision for your Western blot normalization strategy.

When you have completed your housekeeping protein validation and have determined that the HKP expression is unaffected by your experimental conditions, you can use the Housekeeping Protein Normalization Protocol and proceed with using your validated HKPs for Western blot normalization and quantitative analysis.

There you go! Unlike what other vendors may be telling you, you CAN use housekeeping proteins for Western blot normalization – as long as you validate that their expression is not changing under your experimental conditions. Download your copies of Housekeeping Protein Validation Protocol and Housekeeping Protein Normalization Protocol and get started today.

Other Protocols to Support Western Blot Normalization

LI-COR has several other protocols to help you meet new stringent publication guidelines and requirements. These are detailed protocols and include information on how to analyze and interpret your data.

With all of these protocols and our scientific experts, we can help you collect accurate, reliable Western blotting data. You will be confident in your results and your conclusions. When you submit your data for publication, you will be confident that you are meeting even the toughest publication standards. Protocols are also available in an online format at

The Gold Standard for Western Blot Normalization: Total Protein Staining

In the instructions to authors for the Journal of Biological Chemistry, they state:

While you have choices for your Western blot normalization strategy – you can still use housekeeping proteins as long you have validated that their expression is not changing – total protein staining detection is becoming the “gold standard” for normalization of protein loading.

After transfer, but prior to immunodetection, the membrane is treated with a total protein stain to assess actual sample loading across the blot. Because this internal loading control uses the combined signal from many different sample proteins in each lane, error and variability are minimized. This antibody-independent method corrects for variation in both sample protein loading and transfer efficiency, and monitors protein transfer across the blot at all molecular weights. The figure at the left shows that REVERT Total Protein Stain provides highly efficient protein staining on nitrocellulose or Immobilon®-FL PVDF membranes in under 10 minutes. Complete figure legend.

REVERT™ Total Protein Stain is a near-infrared fluorescent membrane stain used for total protein detection and normalization. REVERT staining is imaged at 700 nm, and fluorescent signals are proportional to sample loading.

The REVERT Total Protein Stain Normalization protocol describes how to use REVERT Total Protein Stain for Western blot normalization and quantitative analysis. It includes step-by-step instructions on how to use REVERT stain. There is also detailed information on normalization calculations, analysis of replicates, and data interpretation.

Replication is an important part of quantitative Western blot analysis and is used to confirm the validity of observed changes in protein levels. Biological and technical replications should both be done, since they are both important but meet different needs.

LI-COR has several other protocols to help you meet publication guidelines and requirements. In all of them, key factors for success, data analysis and interpretation are covered as well as links to additional educational resources.

With these protocols and our scientific experts, we can help you collect accurate, reliable data that will meet even the toughest publication standards. Protocols are also available in an online format at

Download your copy of REVERT Total Protein Stain Normalization protocol and use the gold standard to determine your protein loading concentrations. Let us help you be confident in the Western blotting data you submit for publication.

The Importance of Detecting in the Combined Linear Range for Western Blots

In the instructions to authors for the Journal of Biological Chemistry, they state:

What is the linear range of detection?

In quantitative Western blot analysis, the linear range of detection is the range of sample loading that produces a linear relationship between the amount of target on the membrane and the band intensity recorded by the detector.

Within the linear range of detection, band intensity should be proportional to the amount of target. A change in target abundance should produce an equivalent change in signal response. At the upper and lower ends of the linear range, this proportional relationship is lost. Band intensity no longer reflects the abundance of target, and quantification is not possible.

Quantitative Western blot analysis is only accurate if the target protein and internal loading control can both be detected within the same linear range – a range that must be determined experimentally for each target and loading control. The combined linear range is then used to determine how much sample should be loaded to produce a linear signal response for both the target protein and the internal loading control.

Are YOU detecting your target protein and your internal loading control in the combined linear range?

How is the combined linear range determined?

Help has arrived! The protocol “Determining the Linear Range for Quantitative Western Blot Detection” from LI-COR explains how to use serial dilutions of sample protein to determine the linear ranges of detection for a target and internal loading control, and choose an appropriate amount of sample to load for quantitative Western blot analysis.

This protocol also explains key factors for success, required reagents, data analysis and interpretation. Two methods for determining the linear range are included in the protocol:

  • Determining the Linear Range for a Target Protein and REVERT™ Total ProteinStain. Follow these instructions if total protein staining of the membrane will be used as the internal loading control for quantitative Western blot normalization.
  • Determining the Linear Range for a Target Protein and a Housekeeping Protein. Follow these instructions if a housekeeping protein will be used as the internal loading control for quantitative Western blot normalization. This method also applies to normalization with a pan-specific antibody for analysis of phosphorylation or other post-translational modifications.

LI-COR has several other protocols to help you get published. In all of them, key factors for success, data analysis and interpretation are covered as well as links to additional educational resources.

With these protocols and our scientific experts, we can help you collect rock-solid data that will meet even the toughest publication standards. Protocols are also available in an online format at

Download your copy of Determining the Linear Range for Quantitative Western Blot Detection so that you can accurately determine the linear range for your quantitative western blot detection. Let us help you be confident in the Western blotting data you submit for publication.