Immunofiltration and Immunochromatographic Assays

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A pregnancy test stick with 2 red lines; one is labeled test line and the other is labeled control line. A key on the stick states that 2 lines means pregnant and 1 line means not pregnant
A lateral flow test detecting pregnancy-related hormones in urine. The control stripe verifies the validity of the test and the test line determines the presence of pregnancy-related hormones in the urine. (credit: modification of work by Klaus Hoffmeier)

OpenStax Microbiology

For some situations, it may be necessary to detect or quantify antigens or antibodies that are present at very low concentration in solution. Immunofiltration techniques have been developed to make this possible. In immunofiltration, a large volume of fluid is passed through a porous membrane into an absorbent pad. An antigen attached to the porous membrane will capture antibody as it passes; alternatively, we can also attach an antibody to the membrane to capture antigen.

The method of immunofiltration has been adapted in the development of immunochromatographic assays, commonly known as lateral flow tests or strip tests. These tests are quick and easy to perform, making them popular for point-of-care use (i.e., in the doctor’s office) or in-home use. One example is the TORCH test that allows doctors to screen pregnant women or newborns for infection by an array of viruses and other pathogens (Toxoplasma, other viruses, rubella, cytomegalovirus, herpes simplex). In-home pregnancy tests are another widely used example of a lateral flow test. Immunofiltration tests are also popular in developing countries, because they are inexpensive and do not require constant refrigeration of the dried reagents. However, the technology is also built into some sophisticated laboratory equipment.

In lateral flow tests, fluids such as urine are applied to an absorbent pad on the test strip. The fluid flows by capillary action and moves through a stripe of beads with antibodies attached to their surfaces. The fluid in the sample actually hydrates the reagents, which are present in a dried state in the stripe. Antibody-coated beads made of latex or tiny gold particles will bind antigens in the test fluid. The antibody-antigen complexes then flow over a second stripe that has immobilized antibody against the antigen; this stripe will retain the beads that have bound antigen. A third control stripe binds any beads. A red color (from gold particles) or blue (from latex beads) developing at the test line indicates a positive test. If the color only develops at the control line, the test is negative.

Like ELISA techniques, lateral flow tests take advantage of antibody sandwiches, providing sensitivity and specificity. While not as quantitative as ELISA, these tests have the advantage of being fast, inexpensive, and not dependent on special equipment. Thus, they can be performed anywhere by anyone. There are some concerns about putting such powerful diagnostic tests into the hands of people who may not understand the tests’ limitations, such as the possibility of false-positive results. While home pregnancy tests have become widely accepted, at-home antibody-detection tests for diseases like HIV have raised some concerns in the medical community. Some have questioned whether self-administration of such tests should be allowed in the absence of medical personnel who can explain the test results and order appropriate confirmatory tests. However, with growing numbers of lateral flow tests becoming available, and the rapid development of lab-on-a-chip technology, home medical tests are likely to become even more commonplace in the future.

A diagram showing lateral flow test of a urine sample. The top panel shows a positive test and the bottom shows a negative test. In both a urine sample is added; in the positive sample there are antigens present. The label reads hCG urine sample is applied to absorbent sample pad. In both cases the urine sample flows across the test area. The first region is a mix area that contains hCG-second antibody-AuNPs (hCG-GC). These then flow across the hCG strip in both samples. Next, we reach the test line. Here there are antibodies that bind the antigens in the positive sample but bind nothing in the negative sample. In the positive sample the hCG-GC also bind to the antigen, forming an antibody sandwich around the antigen. The presence of the hCG-GC causes a color change here in the positive sample but not in the negative sample.  Finally, the control line contains antibodies that bind the hCG-GC directly; so these bind in both the positive and negative samples. The control line turns a color in both.
Immunochromatographic assays, or lateral flow tests, allow the testing of antigen in a dilute solution. As the fluid flows through the test strip, it rehydrates the reagents. Antibodies conjugated to small particles bind the antigen in the first stripe and then flow onto the second stripe where they are bound by a second, fixed antibody. This produces a line of color, depending on the color of the beads. The third, control stripe binds beads as well to indicate that the test is working properly. (credit: modification of work by Yeh CH, Zhao ZQ, Shen PL, Lin YC)


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: