PET imaging of inflammation and infection
Inflammation is a protective response of living tissue toward injury, caused for example by microbial invasion (infection), trauma, or tumour. Tightly regulated inflammatory processes are also an intrinsic part of normal tissue remodelling and growth. During the inflammatory response the blood flow and capillary permeability are increased and leukocytes migrate from blood into the interstitial space and lymph in the affected tissue region. Acute inflammation is initiated by resident immune cells, which release inflammatory mediators such as histamine, heparin, and serotonin. Activated tissue macrophages and damaged cells release cytokines which attract and activate the leukocytes, and induce the expression of selectins and integrin ligands on endothelial cell surfaces and extracellular matrix. In chronic inflammation the extracellular matrix is degraded by matrix metalloproteases, but also healing processes such as angiogenesis take place at the same time. Activated immune cells may also induce local hypoxia and expression of hypoxia-inducible factors.
The location of inflamed tissue can be found using PET imaging, which is sufficient in many clinical situations, but it would be useful to distinguish between inflammation caused by normal wound heeling and post-surgical infection, and between sterile and infectious loosening of joint replacements. At present the role of PET in the discrimination between infection and non-microbial inflammation, let alone identification of pathogens, is limited, but developing rapidly.
Numerous inflammation-specific PET tracers have been introduced. Many tracers that have been aimed for tumour imaging have been found to accumulate to the tumours partly because of local inflammation.
Activated inflammatory cells have an increased demand for glucose. Increased expression of glucose transporters and hexokinase results in increased uptake of [18F]FDG in the tissue crowded by activated macrophages and neutrophils. Although increased [18F]FDG uptake is not specific for inflammation, it has been used to study for example rheumatoid arthritis, Lyme arthritis (Pietikäinen et al., 2017), inflammatory bowel disease, sarcoidosis, idiopathic retroperitoneal fibrosis (Vaglio and Maritati, 2016), vasculitis, vascular inflammation in atherosclerosis, renal inflammation and infections (Wan et al., 2018, bone and prostheses infections, diabetic foot (Basu et al, 2012), eosinophilic inflammation in asthma, and muscular inflammation (Yamada et al., 1995; Tatejama et al., 2015; Aro et al., 2017). Since [18F]FDG PET can detect both inflammation and cancer, it is optimal for imaging patients with fever of unknown origin (Bleeker-Rovers et al., 2009).
[18F]F- PET has shown promise in imaging of increased bone turnover during inflammation of the bone and in rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis. [18F]F- has also been used to image microcalcification in arterial plaques, both in animal disease models and in humans. Increased [18F]F- uptake has also been observed in chronic tuberculosis lesions in mice.
Gallium-67 was the first radionuclide used for imaging inflammation. 68Ga3+ has shown some promise in imaging bacterial bone infection in animal model (Mäkinen et al., 2005) and in human patients (Nanni et al., 2010; Salomäki et al., 2017). In bacterial infection of soft tissue [18F]FDG resulted in higher signal than [68Ga]Ga3+ (Salomäki et al., 2017).
Increased tissue uptake of PET tracers for translocator protein, TSPO, can be observed in regions where macrophages are present, making them more specific inflammation markers than [18F]FDG. TSPO targeted PET tracers are mainly developed and applied for detecting neuroinflammation, for example in neurodegenerative disorders, stroke, and traumatic brain injury. TSPO ligands have also been used to study atherosclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and muscular inflammation. However, the relatively high expression of TSPO in normal peripheral tissues may limit the applicability of TSPO imaging outside of the nervous system (Largeau et al., 2017).
Vascular leakage and oedema can be visualized using labelled macromolecules which normally can not leave the vasculature. For example, dextran, transferrin, and albumin have been labelled with 68Ga; 68Ga3+ injected into body as chloride or citrate also binds quickly to transferring and albumin. Albumin has also been labelled with copper isotopes, and with 18F. Increased vascular permeability in animal model of muscular inflammation has been detected with 18F-labelled albumin (Niu et al., 2014).
Numerous techniques have been developed for labelling white blood cells (WBC) with isotopes for tracing the sites where WBCs accumulate. For SPECT imaging, lipophilic compounds [99mTc]HMPAO and [111In]oxyquinoline are used to label autologous leukocytes (Love & Pellegrino, 2004). For PET imaging, [18F]FDG-labelled white blood cells are the most studied (Pellegrino et al., 2005). [89Zr]oxinate4 could be used for long-term tracking of leukocytes (Charoenphun et al., 2015). Usually, though, white blood cells are labelled in vivo, by administering tracer that binds to targets that are abundant on white blood cells, such as TSPO and chemokine receptors.
[18F]FAC can be used to measure the activity of deoxyribonucleotide salvage pathway, and has shown promise in imaging lymphoid organs and immune activation, including lymphocyte infiltration in tissue (Radu et al., 2008; Brewer et al., 2010; Salas et al., 2018).
Activated macrophages and fibroblasts overexpress somatostatin receptors. SSTR2 is exclusively expressed in proinflammatory macrophages, but not in other macrophage phenotypes, and not in monocytes, T or B lymphocytes, NK cells, platelets, neutrophils, or endothelial cells (Tarkin et al., 2017).
Sphingosine-1-phosphate (S1P) and its receptors are involved in many immune system mediated diseases, including MS, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease. PET tracers targeting S1P receptor 1 have been used in animals models of inflammatory diseases.
Folate receptor β is expressed on activated macrophages, but not in quiescent macrophages. Folate receptor targeted PET tracers have shown better or equal signal-to-noise ratio, but much lower target-to-background ratio, than [18F]FDG in animal model of inflammation (Kularatne et al., 2013). Because of their better sensitivity to inflammation than [18F]FDG, FRβ-specific radiotracers can be useful in drug research and diagnosis of inflammatory diseases. For example, [18F]fluoro-PEG-folate can be used to monitor anti-folate therapy in rat model of arthritis (Chandrupatla et al., 2017). Folate-conjugated anti-inflammatory drugs and FRβ-targeted antibodies are under development for autoimmune diseases.
Cyclooxygenase (COX), or officially prostaglandin-endoperoxide synthase (PTGS) is a family of enzymes that are responsible for the formation of prostanoids, including prostaglandins and thromboxane. These cause the pain and tissue swelling in inflammation. Prostaglandins are derived from arachidonic acid, which is an abundant fatty acid in cell membranes. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen are COX inhibitors. COX-1 is expressed constitutively in normal tissues, but the expression of COX-2 is induced by several cytokines, including TNF-α.
Several COX inhibitors have been labelled for use in PET (Takashima-Hirano et al., 2010). As an example, [11C]ketoprofen binds to both COX-1 and COX-2, and has been used to observe the status of inflammation, for example in rheumatoid arthritis. COX-2 specific drugs have been developed, but the PET tracers based on those have mostly provided disappointing results (Laube et al., 2013).
Activated immune cells may cause a localized tissue hypoxia and expression of hypoxia-inducible factors. PET tracers developed for hypoxia imaging have been used in experimental rheumatoid arthritis model in mice (Fuchs et al., 2017).
Perfusion and oxygen extraction fraction (OEF) have been studied in rabbit muscle infected with Escherichia coli using steady-state [15O]CO2 and [15O]O2; large increase in perfusion was seen, and moderate decrease in OEF (Senda et al., 1992).
Apoptosis is often linked to inflammation and infection, and can therefore often be studied using PET tracers aimed for cell death imaging, even in case of aseptic inflammation (Liang et al., 2014). Additionally, many pathogens can avoid inflammatory response by apoptotic mimicry, which may then be best detected by apoptosis imaging.
In chronic inflammation, tissue-infiltrated lymphocytes release angiogenic cytokines and chemokines. In a sterile muscle inflammation model, increased uptake of integrin αvβ3 tracer [18F]Alfatide-II was observed (Wu et al., 2014).
Neurokinin 1 receptors and substance P
Increased NK1 receptor availability is observed with [11C]GR205171 PET in neurogenic inflammation.
Cellular adhesion molecules
PET tracers binding to vascular adhesion protein 1 in leukocytes, VAP-1, have been used in imaging inflammation and tumours.
Formyl peptide receptor
Labelled peptides that bind to formyl peptide receptor (FPR) have been used to visualize neutrophils in inflammation models.
Mannose receptor (CD206) is expressed on the surface of macrophages, dermal fibroblasts, and keratinocytes. Mannans contain mannose, and are an important part of cell walls of yeasts and fungi. Mannose receptor can be targeted with mannose-containing macromolecules, for instance [18F]fluoromannan.
Activated white blood cells upregulate the expression of components of the cholinergic signalling pathway. Increased uptake of AChE marker [11C]donepezil and VAChT marker [18F]FEOBV have been seen in animal models and in humans with infections, inflammation, and cancer (Jørgensen et al., 2017).
P2X7 receptor is abundantly expressed on inflammatory cells, and may be largely responsible for the release of inflammatory cytokines of the interleukin family (Di Virgilio et al., 2017). Various inflammatory mediators, including IFN-γ and TNF-α, can upregulate P2X7R expression on macrophages and other cell types, while anti-inflammatory mediators, such as TGF-β1 and interleukins, can downregulate the expression (Bartlett et al., 2014). Tracers for neuroinflammation research are being developed.
Transient receptor potential channels (TRPs) support inflammation via secretion of proinflammatory neuropeptides, and induce the sensation of pain. Function of TRPs is modulated by endocannabinoids. TRPV1 and TRPV6 are targets for capsaicin, that can induce apoptosis in some tumour cell lines.
Cell wall components
Bacterial cell walls contain molecular structures that can be targeted by specific antibodies, antibody fragments, or affibodies. β-D-glucans on some bacteria and fungi, and lipoteichoic acid (LTA) on Gram-positive bacteria are examples of such targets.
[18F]FIAU was initially developed for imaging of cells transfected with reporter gene (HSV1 thymidine kinase). Cells which express the enzyme will phosphorylate the tracer, leading to trapping of 18F-label. However, [18F]FIAU is also substrate for the endogenous thymidine kinase in bacteria, enabling in vivo visualization of bacteria and the effect of antimicrobial therapy.
Ciprofloxacin inhibits bacterial DNA gyrase and topoisomerases, and the uptake of 99mTc- and 18F-labelled ciprofloxacin has been used for visualisation of lesions with bacterial infection. However, nonspecific binding of [18F]ciprofloxacin is relatively high and it is also retained in granulocytes. Its initial uptake is affected by general inflammatory responses such as increased perfusion and vascular leakage.
Other labelled antibiotics include depsidomycin derivative [68Ga]DOTA-TBIA101, [18F]fleroxacin, 2-[18F]-INH, and [18F]trovafloxacin.
Antimicrobial peptide (AMP), or host defence peptide, is a general term for over thousand molecules identified so far that could be described as natural microbicides, since they are produced by eukaryotic cells, also in humans, to target prokaryotic cells. AMPs are electrostatically attracted to the negatively charged bacterial cell walls, destroying the membranes or inhibiting intracellular processes. Although bacterial mass in infected tissues is small, the large surface-to-mass ratio of bacteria enables imaging applications.
Ubiquicidin and its fragments have been radiolabelled, and shown promise in animal models in PET and SPECT imaging.
Siderophore (“iron carrier”) is a general term for small molecules secreted by most micro-organisms for Fe3+ acquisition and storage (Petrik et al., 2017). Most fungi and bacteria can utilize siderophores released by other micro-organism, even if they themselves have lost the ability to produce siderophores. Since the chemistry of Ga3+ is very similar to Fe3+, 68Ga-labeled siderophores and 68Ga-citrate have been used to target bacterial and especially fungal infections.
Sorbitol is a metabolic substrate for certain strains of gram-negative bacteria. 2-[18F]-fluorodeoxysorbitol ([18F]FDS) has been shown in mice studies to specifically accumulate in tissues with active infection, but not in inflamed tissue (Ordonez et al., 2017: Li et al., 2018). [18F]FDS is easy to produce from [18F]FDG by a one-step reduction, it is metabolically stable, and excreted to urine via kidneys (Wakabayashi et al., 2016). [18F]FDS is suitable for human studies from a radiation dosimetry perspective (Zhu et al., 2016).
[18F]FPMPA is a 18F-labelled analogue of antiretroviral tenofovir.
Many intracellular pathogens exploit the hosts response to apoptosis by exposing phosphatidylserine (PS) on their surface or by cloaking themselves in host cell derived PS-containing vesicles, to facilitate binding, entry, and immune response evasion (Rice et al., 2016). Apoptotic mimicry is utilized by many viruses, such as hepatitis B, HIV, and dengue; and some parasitic micro-organisms, such as trypanosomatids. Also certain bacteria, such as Listeria monocytogenes, emerge from infected macrophages packaged in PS-coated vesicles, thus gaining access to healthy macrophages via phagocytosis.
Although the exposed phosphatidylserine is the natural signal to macrophages to start phagocytosis, also other anionic phospholipids can trigger the same response. Anionic surface charge is a common feature of the bacterial cell envelope, achieved by phosphate-containing lipopolysaccharides (LPS), techoic acids, or phospholipids such as phosphatidylglycerol (PG) and cardiolipin (CL). Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Streptococcus pyogenes are examples of these bacteria.
PET tracers developed to target PS may be useful on detecting these pathogens, although the response will not be specific, as PS is exposed also in normal apoptosis, even during non-microbial inflammation.
- Lymphatic system
- Somatostatin receptors
- Endocannabinoid system
- Histaminergic system
- Analysis of [18F]FDG
- Analysis of [68Ga]Ga3+
- Analysis of [18F]Fluoride
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Created at: 2015-08-18
Updated at: 2018-11-22
Written by: Vesa Oikonen