Purpose: Stem cell transplants are an effective approach to repair large bone defects. However, comprehensive techniques to monitor the fate of transplanted stem cells in vivo are lacking. Such strategies would enable corrective interventions at an early stage and greatly benefit the development of more successful tissue regeneration approaches. In this study, we designed and synthesized a dual-modality imaging probe (Feru-AFC) that can simultaneously localize transplanted stem cells and diagnose immune rejection-induced apoptosis at an early stage in vivo. Methods: We used a customized caspase-3 cleavable peptide-dye conjugate to modify the surface of clinically approved ferumoxytol nanoparticles (NPs) to generate the dual-modality imaging probe with fluorescence "light-up" feature. We labeled both mouse mesenchymal stem cells (mMSCs, matched) and pig mesenchymal stem cells (pMSCs, mismatched) with the probe and transplanted the labeled cells with biocompatible scaffold at the calvarial defects in mice. We then employed intravital microscopy (IVM) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to investigate the localization, engraftment, and viability of matched and mismatched stem cells, followed by histological analyses to evaluate the results obtained from in vivo studies. Results: The Feru-AFC NPs showed good cellular uptake efficiency in the presence of lipofectin without cytotoxicity to mMSCs and pMSCs. The fluorescence of Feru-AFC NPs was turned on inside apoptotic cells due to the cleavage of peptide by activated caspase-3 and subsequent release of fluorescence dye molecules. Upon transplantation at the calvarial defects in mice, the intense fluorescence from the cleaved Feru-AFC NPs in apoptotic pMSCs was observed with a concomitant decrease in the overall cell number from days 1 to 6. In contrast, the Feru-AFC NP-treated mMSCs exhibited minimum fluorescence and the cell number also remained similar. Furthermore, in vivo MRI of the Feru-AFC NP-treated mMSC and pMSCs transplants could clearly indicate the localization of matched and mismatched cells, respectively. Conclusions: We successfully developed a dual-modality imaging probe for evaluation of the localization and viability of transplanted stem cells in mouse calvarial defects. Using ferumoxytol NPs as the platform, our Feru-AFC NPs are superparamagnetic and display a fluorescence "light-up" signature upon exposure to activated caspase-3. The results show that the probe is a promising tool for long-term stem cell tracking through MRI and early diagnosis of immune rejection-induced apoptosis through longitudinal fluorescence imaging.
Keywords: apoptosis; calvarial defect; intravital microscopy imaging; magnetic resonance imaging; molecular imaging; stem cell.