Introduction: Detection of (subclinical) synovitis is relevant for both early diagnosis and monitoring of therapy of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Previously, the potential of imaging (sub)clinical arthritis was demonstrated by targeting the translocator protein in activated macrophages using (R)-[11C]PK11195 and positron emission tomography (PET). Images, however, also showed significant peri-articular background activity. The folate receptor (FR)-β is a potential alternative target for imaging activated macrophages. Therefore, the PET tracer [18F]fluoro-PEG-folate was synthesized and evaluated in both in vitro and ex vivo studies using a methylated BSA induced arthritis model.
Methods: [18F]fluoro-PEG-folate was synthesized in a two-step procedure. Relative binding affinities of non-radioactive fluoro-PEG-folate, folic acid and naturally circulating 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-Me-THF) to FR were determined using KB cells with high expression of FR. Both in vivo [18F]fluoro-PEG-folate PET and ex vivo tissue distribution studies were performed in arthritic and normal rats and results were compared with those of the established macrophage tracer (R)-[11C]PK11195.
Results: [18F]fluoro-PEG-folate was synthesized with a purity >97%, a yield of 300 to 1,700 MBq and a specific activity between 40 and 70 GBq/µmol. Relative in vitro binding affinity for FR of F-PEG-folate was 1.8-fold lower than that of folic acid, but 3-fold higher than that of 5-Me-THF. In the rat model, [18F]fluoro-PEG-folate uptake in arthritic knees was increased compared with both contralateral knees and knees of normal rats. Uptake in arthritic knees could be blocked by an excess of glucosamine-folate, consistent with [18F]fluoro-PEG-folate being specifically bound to FR. Arthritic knee-to-bone and arthritic knee-to-blood ratios of [18F]fluoro-PEG-folate were increased compared with those of (R)-[11C]PK11195. Reduction of 5-Me-THF levels in rat plasma to those mimicking human levels increased absolute [18F]fluoro-PEG-folate uptake in arthritic joints, but without improving target-to-background ratios.
Conclusions: The novel PET tracer [18F]fluoro-PEG-folate, designed to target FR on activated macrophages provided improved contrast in a rat model of arthritis compared with the accepted macrophage tracer (R)-[11C]PK11195. These results warrant further exploration of [18F]fluoro-PEG-folate as a putative PET tracer for imaging (sub)clinical arthritis in RA patients.