Introduction: Standard measurements used to assess murine models of rheumatoid arthritis, notably paw thickness and clinical score, do not align well with certain aspects of disease severity as assessed by histopathology. We tested the hypothesis that non-invasive optical tomographic imaging of molecular biomarkers of inflammation and bone turnover would provide a superior quantitative readout and would discriminate between a disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug (DMARD) and a non-DMARD treatment.
Methods: Using two protease-activated near-infrared fluorescence imaging agents to detect inflammation-associated cathepsin and matrix metalloprotease activity, and a third agent to detect bone turnover, we quantified fluorescence in paws of mice with collagen antibody-induced arthritis. Fluorescence molecular tomographic (FMT) imaging results, which provided deep tissue detection and quantitative readouts in absolute picomoles of agent fluorescence per paw, were compared with paw swelling, clinical scores, a panel of plasma biomarkers, and histopathology to discriminate between steroid (prednisolone), DMARD (p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) inhibitor) and non-DMARD (celecoxib, cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) inhibitor) treatments.
Results: Paw thickness, clinical score, and plasma biomarkers failed to discriminate well between a p38 MAPK inhibitor and a COX-2 inhibitor. In contrast, FMT quantification using near-infrared agents to detect protease activity or bone resorption yielded a clear discrimination between the different classes of therapeutics. FMT results agreed well with inflammation scores, and both imaging and histopathology provided clearer discrimination between treatments as compared with paw swelling, clinical score, and serum biomarker readouts.
Conclusions: Non-invasive optical tomographic imaging offers a unique approach to monitoring disease pathogenesis and correlates with histopathology assessment of joint inflammation and bone resorption. The specific use of optical tomography allowed accurate three-dimensional imaging, quantitation in picomoles rather than intensity or relative fluorescence, and, for the first time, showed that non-invasive imaging assessment can predict the pathologist's histology inflammation scoring and discriminate DMARD from non-DMARD activity.