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Open Access Highly Accessed Methodology article

Gene expression profiling of whole blood: Comparison of target preparation methods for accurate and reproducible microarray analysis

Kristina Vartanian1, Rachel Slottke1, Timothy Johnstone1, Amanda Casale2, Stephen R Planck234, Dongseok Choi5, Justine R Smith23, James T Rosenbaum234 and Christina A Harrington16*

Author Affiliations

1 Gene Microarray Shared Resource, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, OR, USA

2 Casey Eye Institute, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, OR, USA

3 Department of Cell & Developmental Biology, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, OR, USA

4 Department of Medicine, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, OR, USA

5 Department of Public Health & Preventive Medicine, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, OR, USA

6 Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, OR, USA

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BMC Genomics 2009, 10:2  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-10-2

Published: 5 January 2009



Peripheral blood is an accessible and informative source of transcriptomal information for many human disease and pharmacogenomic studies. While there can be significant advantages to analyzing RNA isolated from whole blood, particularly in clinical studies, the preparation of samples for microarray analysis is complicated by the need to minimize artifacts associated with highly abundant globin RNA transcripts. The impact of globin RNA transcripts on expression profiling data can potentially be reduced by using RNA preparation and labeling methods that remove or block globin RNA during the microarray assay. We compared four different methods for preparing microarray hybridization targets from human whole blood collected in PAXGene tubes. Three of the methods utilized the Affymetrix one-cycle cDNA synthesis/in vitro transcription protocol but varied treatment of input RNA as follows: i. no treatment; ii. treatment with GLOBINclear; or iii. treatment with globin PNA oligos. In the fourth method cDNA targets were prepared with the Ovation amplification and labeling system.


We find that microarray targets generated with labeling methods that reduce globin mRNA levels or minimize the impact of globin transcripts during hybridization detect more transcripts in the microarray assay compared with the standard Affymetrix method. Comparison of microarray results with quantitative PCR analysis of a panel of genes from the NF-kappa B pathway shows good correlation of transcript measurements produced with all four target preparation methods, although method-specific differences in overall correlation were observed. The impact of freezing blood collected in PAXGene tubes on data reproducibility was also examined. Expression profiles show little or no difference when RNA is extracted from either fresh or frozen blood samples.


RNA preparation and labeling methods designed to reduce the impact of globin mRNA transcripts can significantly improve the sensitivity of the DNA microarray expression profiling assay for whole blood samples. While blockage of globin transcripts during first strand cDNA synthesis with globin PNAs resulted in the best overall performance in this study, we conclude that selection of a protocol for expression profiling studies in blood should depend on several factors, including implementation requirements of the method and study design. RNA isolated from either freshly collected or frozen blood samples stored in PAXGene tubes can be used without altering gene expression profiles.