Visualizing cell-cell communication using synthetic notch activated MRI

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2023 Mar 14;120(11):e2216901120. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2216901120. Epub 2023 Mar 9.


Cell-cell communication plays a fundamental role in multicellular organisms. Cell-based cancer immunotherapies rely on the ability of innate or engineered receptors on immune cells to engage specific antigens on cancer cells to induce tumor kill. To improve the development and translation of these therapies, imaging tools capable of noninvasively and spatiotemporally visualizing immune-cancer cell interactions would be highly valuable. Using the synthetic Notch (SynNotch) system, we engineered T cells that upon interaction with a chosen antigen (CD19) on neighboring cancer cells induce the expression of optical reporter genes and the human-derived, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) reporter gene organic anion transporting polypeptide 1B3 (OATP1B3). Administration of engineered T cells induced the antigen-dependent expression of all our reporter genes in mice bearing CD19-positive tumors but not CD19-negative tumors. Notably, due to the high spatial resolution and tomographic nature of MRI, contrast-enhanced foci within CD19-positive tumors representing OATP1B3-expressing T cells were clearly visible and their distribution was readily mapped. We then extended this technology onto human natural killer-92 (NK-92) cells, observing similar CD19-dependent reporter activity in tumor-bearing mice. Furthermore, we show that when delivered intravenously, engineered NK-92 cells can be detected via bioluminescence imaging in a systemic cancer model. With continued work, this highly modular imaging strategy could aid in the monitoring of cell therapies in patients and, beyond this, augment our understanding of how different cell populations interact within the body during normal physiology or disease.

Keywords: MRI; cell therapy; cell–cell communication; reporter gene; synthetic Notch.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Genes, Reporter
  • Humans
  • Killer Cells, Natural
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Mice
  • Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Organic Anion Transporters* / genetics


  • Organic Anion Transporters