Quantitative Assessment of Cancer Vascular Architecture by Skeletonization of High-Resolution 3-D Contrast-Enhanced Ultrasound Images: Role of Liposomes and Microbubbles

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Abstract

The accurate characterization and description of the vascular network of a cancer lesion is of paramount importance in clinical practice and cancer research in order to improve diagnostic accuracy or to assess the effectiveness of a treatment. The aim of this study was to show the effectiveness of liposomes as an ultrasound contrast agent to describe the 3-D vascular architecture of a tumor. Eight C57BL/6 mice grafted with syngeneic B16-F10 murine melanoma cells were injected with a bolus of 1,2-Distearoyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphocoline (DSPC)-based non-targeted liposomes and with a bolus of microbubbles. 3-D contrast-enhanced images of the tumor lesions were acquired in three conditions: pre-contrast, after the injection of microbubbles, and after the injection of liposomes. By using a previously developed reconstruction and characterization image processing technique, we obtained the 3-D representation of the vascular architecture in these three conditions. Six descriptive parameters of these networks were also computed: the number of vascular trees (NT), the vascular density (VD), the number of branches, the 2-D curvature measure, the number of vascular flexes of the vessels, and the 3-D curvature. Results showed that all the vascular descriptors obtained by liposome-based images were statistically equal to those obtained by using microbubbles, except the VD which was found to be lower for liposome images. All the six descriptors computed in pre-contrast conditions had values that were statistically lower than those computed in presence of contrast, both for liposomes and microbubbles. Liposomes have already been used in cancer therapy for the selective ultrasound-mediated delivery of drugs. This work demonstrated their effectiveness also as vascular diagnostic contrast agents, therefore proving that liposomes can be used as efficient “theranostic” (i.e. therapeutic + diagnostic) ultrasound probes.

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