Rectal Tumor Stiffness Quantified by In Vivo Tomoelastography and Collagen Content Estimated by Histopathology Predict Tumor Aggressiveness

Front Oncol. 2021 Aug 13;11:701336. doi: 10.3389/fonc.2021.701336. eCollection 2021.


Purpose: To investigate the significance of collagen in predicting the aggressiveness of rectal tumors in patients, examined in vivo based on tomoelastography quantified stiffness and ex vivo by histologically measured collagen volume fraction (CVF).

Experimental design: 170 patients with suspected rectal cancer were prospectively enrolled and underwent preoperative magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and rectal tomoelastography, a technique based on multifrequency magnetic resonance elastography. Histopathologic analysis identified eighty patients with rectal cancer who were divided into subgroups by tumor-node (TN) stage, prognostic stage, and risk level. Rectal tumor stiffness was correlated with histopathologic CVF. Area-under-the-curve (AUC) and contingency analysis were used to evaluate the performance of rectal stiffness in distinguishing tumor stages which was compared to standard clinical MRI.

Results: In vivo tomoelastography revealed that rectal tumor stiffened significantly with increased TN stage (p<0.05). Tumors with poorly differentiated status, perineural and lymphovascular invasion also displayed higher stiffness than well-to-moderately differentiated, noninvasive tumors (all p<0.05). Similar to in vivo stiffness, CVF indicated an abnormally high collagen content in tumors with perineural invasion and poor differentiation status. CVF was also positively correlated with stiffness (p<0.05). Most importantly, both stiffness (AUROC: 0.82) and CVF (AUROC: 0.89) demonstrated very good diagnostic accuracy in detecting rectal tumors that have high risk for progressing to an aggressive state with poorer prognosis.

Conclusion: In human rectal carcinomas, overexpression of collagen is correlated with increased tissue stiffness and high risk for tumor advancing more aggressively. In vivo tomoelastography quantifies rectal tumor stiffness which improves the diagnostic performance of standard MRI in the assessment of lymph nodes metastasis. Therefore, in vivo stiffness mapping by tomoelastography can predict rectal tumor aggressiveness and add diagnostic value to MRI.

Keywords: collagen content; multifrequency magnetic resonance elastography; rectal cancer; risk factors; stiffness; tomoelastography; tumor aggressiveness.