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Illustration of the basic components of an immunoassay, which includes an analyte (green), an antibody (black), and a detectable label (yellow).
An immunoassay is a biochemical test that measures the presence or concentration of a macromolecule or a small molecule in a solution through the use of an antibody (usually) or an antigen (sometimes). The molecule detected by the immunoassay is often referred to as an "analyte" and is in many cases a protein, although it may be other kinds of molecules, of different size and types, as long as the proper antibodies that have the adequate properties for the assay are developed. Analytes in biological liquids such as serum or urine are frequently measured using immunoassays for medical and research purposes.
Immunoassays come in many different formats and variations. Immunoassays may be run in multiple steps with reagents being added and washed away or separated at different points in the assay. Multi-step assays are often called separation immunoassays or heterogeneous immunoassays. Some immunoassays can be carried out simply by mixing the reagents and sample and making a physical measurement. Such assays are called homogenous immunoassays or less frequently non-separation immunoassays.
The use of a calibrator is often employed in immunoassays. Calibrators are solutions that are known to contain the analyte in question, and the concentration of that analyte is generally known. Comparison of an assay's response to a real sample against the assay's response produced by the calibrators makes it possible to interpret the signal strength in terms of the presence or concentration of analyte in the sample.
Immunoassays rely on the ability of an antibody to recognize and bind a specific macromolecule in what might be a complex mixture of macromolecules. In immunology the particular macromolecule bound by an antibody is referred to as an antigen and the area on an antigen to which the antibody binds is called an epitope.
In some cases an immunoassay may use an antigen to detect for the presence of antibodies, which recognize that antigen, in a solution. In other words, in some immunoassays, the analyte may be an antibody rather than an antigen.
In addition to the binding of an antibody to its antigen, the other key feature of all immunoassays is a means to produce a measurable signal in response to the binding. Most, though not all, immunoassays involve chemically linking antibodies or antigens with some kind of detectable label. A large number of labels exist in modern immunoassays, and they allow for detection through different means. Many labels are detectable because they either emit radiation, produce a color change in a solution, fluoresce under light, or because they can be induced to emit light.
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