Background: Infectious diseases are the second leading cause of death worldwide. In order to better understand and treat them, an accurate evaluation using multi-modal imaging techniques for anatomical and functional characterizations is needed. For non-invasive imaging techniques such as computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET), there have been many engineering improvements that have significantly enhanced the resolution and contrast of the images, but there are still insufficient computational algorithms available for researchers to use when accurately quantifying imaging data from anatomical structures and functional biological processes. Since the development of such tools may potentially translate basic research into the clinic, this study focuses on the development of a quantitative and qualitative image analysis platform that provides a computational radiology perspective for pulmonary infections in small animal models. Specifically, we designed (a) a fast and robust automated and semi-automated image analysis platform and a quantification tool that can facilitate accurate diagnostic measurements of pulmonary lesions as well as volumetric measurements of anatomical structures, and incorporated (b) an image registration pipeline to our proposed framework for volumetric comparison of serial scans. This is an important investigational tool for small animal infectious disease models that can help advance researchers' understanding of infectious diseases.
Methods: We tested the utility of our proposed methodology by using sequentially acquired CT and PET images of rabbit, ferret, and mouse models with respiratory infections of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB), H1N1 flu virus, and an aerosolized respiratory pathogen (necrotic TB) for a total of 92, 44, and 24 scans for the respective studies with half of the scans from CT and the other half from PET. Institutional Administrative Panel on Laboratory Animal Care approvals were obtained prior to conducting this research. First, the proposed computational framework registered PET and CT images to provide spatial correspondences between images. Second, the lungs from the CT scans were segmented using an interactive region growing (IRG) segmentation algorithm with mathematical morphology operations to avoid false positive (FP) uptake in PET images. Finally, we segmented significant radiotracer uptake from the PET images in lung regions determined from CT and computed metabolic volumes of the significant uptake. All segmentation processes were compared with expert radiologists' delineations (ground truths). Metabolic and gross volume of lesions were automatically computed with the segmentation processes using PET and CT images, and percentage changes in those volumes over time were calculated. (Continued on next page)(Continued from previous page) Standardized uptake value (SUV) analysis from PET images was conducted as a complementary quantitative metric for disease severity assessment. Thus, severity and extent of pulmonary lesions were examined through both PET and CT images using the aforementioned quantification metrics outputted from the proposed framework.
Results: Each animal study was evaluated within the same subject class, and all steps of the proposed methodology were evaluated separately. We quantified the accuracy of the proposed algorithm with respect to the state-of-the-art segmentation algorithms. For evaluation of the segmentation results, dice similarity coefficient (DSC) as an overlap measure and Haussdorf distance as a shape dissimilarity measure were used. Significant correlations regarding the estimated lesion volumes were obtained both in CT and PET images with respect to the ground truths (R2=0.8922,p<0.01 and R2=0.8664,p<0.01, respectively). The segmentation accuracy (DSC (%)) was 93.4±4.5% for normal lung CT scans and 86.0±7.1% for pathological lung CT scans. Experiments showed excellent agreements (all above 85%) with expert evaluations for both structural and functional imaging modalities. Apart from quantitative analysis of each animal, we also qualitatively showed how metabolic volumes were changing over time by examining serial PET/CT scans. Evaluation of the registration processes was based on precisely defined anatomical landmark points by expert clinicians. An average of 2.66, 3.93, and 2.52 mm errors was found in rabbit, ferret, and mouse data (all within the resolution limits), respectively. Quantitative results obtained from the proposed methodology were visually related to the progress and severity of the pulmonary infections as verified by the participating radiologists. Moreover, we demonstrated that lesions due to the infections were metabolically active and appeared multi-focal in nature, and we observed similar patterns in the CT images as well. Consolidation and ground glass opacity were the main abnormal imaging patterns and consistently appeared in all CT images. We also found that the gross and metabolic lesion volume percentage follow the same trend as the SUV-based evaluation in the longitudinal analysis.
Conclusions: We explored the feasibility of using PET and CT imaging modalities in three distinct small animal models for two diverse pulmonary infections. We concluded from the clinical findings, derived from the proposed computational pipeline, that PET-CT imaging is an invaluable hybrid modality for tracking pulmonary infections longitudinally in small animals and has great potential to become routinely used in clinics. Our proposed methodology showed that automated computed-aided lesion detection and quantification of pulmonary infections in small animal models are efficient and accurate as compared to the clinical standard of manual and semi-automated approaches. Automated analysis of images in pre-clinical applications can increase the efficiency and quality of pre-clinical findings that ultimately inform downstream experimental design in human clinical studies; this innovation will allow researchers and clinicians to more effectively allocate study resources with respect to research demands without compromising accuracy.