Imaging of cell proliferation: status and prospects

J Nucl Med. 2008 Jun;49 Suppl 2:64S-80S. doi: 10.2967/jnumed.107.046391.


Increased cellular proliferation is an integral part of the cancer phenotype. Several in vitro assays have been developed to measure the rate of tumor growth, but these require biopsies, which are particularly difficult to obtain over time and in different areas of the body in patients with multiple metastatic lesions. Most of the effort to develop imaging methods to noninvasively measure the rate of tumor cell proliferation has focused on the use of PET in conjunction with tracers for the thymidine salvage pathway of DNA synthesis, because thymidine contains the only pyrimidine or purine base that is unique to DNA. Imaging with 11C-thymidine has been tested for detecting tumors and tracking their response to therapy in animals and patients. Its major limitations are the short half-life of 11C and the rapid catabolism of thymidine after injection. These limitations led to the development of analogs that are resistant to degradation and can be labeled with radionuclides more conducive to routine clinical use, such as 18F. At this point, the thymidine analogs that have been studied the most are 3'-deoxy-3'-fluorothymidine (FLT) and 1-(2'-deoxy-2'-fluoro-1-beta-d-arabinofuranosyl)-thymine (FMAU). Both are resistant to degradation and track the DNA synthesis pathway. FLT is phosphorylated by thymidine kinase 1, thus being retained in proliferating cells. It is incorporated by the normal proliferating marrow and is glucuronidated in the liver. FMAU can be incorporated into DNA after phosphorylation but shows less marrow uptake. It shows high uptake in the normal heart, kidneys, and liver, in part because of the role of mitochondrial thymidine kinase 2. Early clinical data for 18F-FLT demonstrated that its uptake correlates well with in vitro measures of proliferation. Although 18F-FLT can be used to detect tumors, its tumor-to-normal tissue contrast is generally lower than that of 18F-FDG in most cancers outside the brain. The most promising use for thymidine and its analogs is in monitoring tumor treatment response, as demonstrated in animal studies and pilot human trials. Further work is needed to determine the optimal tracer(s) and timing of imaging after treatment.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Proliferation*
  • Dideoxynucleosides
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Neoplasms / therapy
  • Positron-Emission Tomography
  • Radiopharmaceuticals


  • Dideoxynucleosides
  • Radiopharmaceuticals
  • alovudine