Decoding the Heterogeneity of Malignant Gliomas by PET and MRI for Spatial Habitat Analysis of Hypoxia, Perfusion, and Diffusion Imaging: A Preliminary Study

Front Neurosci. 2022 Jul 13;16:885291. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2022.885291. eCollection 2022.


Background: Tumor heterogeneity poses major clinical challenges in high-grade gliomas (HGGs). Quantitative radiomic analysis with spatial tumor habitat clustering represents an innovative, non-invasive approach to represent and quantify tumor microenvironment heterogeneity. To date, habitat imaging has been applied mainly on conventional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), although virtually extendible to any imaging modality, including advanced MRI techniques such as perfusion and diffusion MRI as well as positron emission tomography (PET) imaging.

Objectives: This study aims to evaluate an innovative PET and MRI approach for assessing hypoxia, perfusion, and tissue diffusion in HGGs and derive a combined map for clustering of intra-tumor heterogeneity.

Materials and methods: Seventeen patients harboring HGGs underwent a pre-operative acquisition of MR perfusion (PWI), Diffusion (dMRI) and 18F-labeled fluoroazomycinarabinoside (18F-FAZA) PET imaging to evaluate tumor vascularization, cellularity, and hypoxia, respectively. Tumor volumes were segmented on fluid-attenuated inversion recovery (FLAIR) and T1 post-contrast images, and voxel-wise clustering of each quantitative imaging map identified eight combined PET and physiologic MRI habitats. Habitats' spatial distribution, quantitative features and histopathological characteristics were analyzed.

Results: A highly reproducible distribution pattern of the clusters was observed among different cases, particularly with respect to morphological landmarks as the necrotic core, contrast-enhancing vital tumor, and peritumoral infiltration and edema, providing valuable supplementary information to conventional imaging. A preliminary analysis, performed on stereotactic bioptic samples where exact intracranial coordinates were available, identified a reliable correlation between the expected microenvironment of the different spatial habitats and the actual histopathological features. A trend toward a higher representation of the most aggressive clusters in WHO (World Health Organization) grade IV compared to WHO III was observed.

Conclusion: Preliminary findings demonstrated high reproducibility of the PET and MRI hypoxia, perfusion, and tissue diffusion spatial habitat maps and correlation with disease-specific histopathological features.

Keywords: MRI; PET; diffusion-weighted imaging; habitats; high-grade glioma; hypoxia imaging; perfusion-weighted imaging; tumor heterogeneity.