Contrast enhancement by differently sized paramagnetic MRI contrast agents in mice with two phenotypes of atherosclerotic plaque
Interest in the use of contrast-enhanced MRI to enable in vivo specific characterization of atherosclerotic plaques is increasing. In this study the intrinsic ability of three differently sized gadolinium-based contrast agents to permeate different mouse plaque phenotypes was evaluated with MRI. A tapered cast was implanted around the right carotid artery of apoE-/-mice to induce two different plaque phenotypes: a thin cap fibroatheroma (TCFA) and a non-TCFA lesion. Both plaques were allowed to develop over 6 and 9 weeks, leading to an intermediate and advanced lesion, respectively. Signal enhancement in the carotid artery wall, following intravenous injection of Gd-HP-DO3A as well as paramagnetic micelles and liposomes was evaluated. In vivo T1-weighted MRI plaque enhancement characteristics were complemented by fluorescence microscopy and correlated to lesion phenotype. The two smallest contrast agents, i.e. Gd-HP-DO3A and micelles, were found to enhance contrast in T1-weighted MR images of all investigated plaque phenotypes. Maximum contrast enhancement ranged between 53 and 70% at 6min after injection of Gd-HP-DO3A with highest enhancement and longest retention in the non-TCFA lesion. Twenty-four hours after injection of micelles maximum contrast enhancement ranged between 24 and 35% in all plaque phenotypes. Administration of the larger liposomes did not cause significant contrast enhancement in the atherosclerotic plaques. Confocal fluorescence microscopy confirmed the MRI-based differences in plaque permeation between micelles and liposomes. Plaque permeation of contrast agents was strongly dependent on size. Our results implicate that, when equipped with targeting ligands, liposomes are most suitable for the imaging of plaque-associated endothelial markers due to low background enhancement, whereas micelles, which accumulate extravascularly on a long timescale, are suited for imaging of less abundant markers inside plaques. Low molecular weight compounds may be employed for target-specific imaging of highly abundant extravascular plaque-associated targets.