Influence of nesting shell size on brightness longevity and resistance to ultrasound-induced dissolution during enhanced B-mode contrast imaging

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This study aims to bridge the gap between transport mechanisms of an improved ultrasound contrast agent (UCA) and its resulting behavior in a clinical imaging study. Phospholipid-shelled microbubbles nested within the aqueous core of a polymer microcapsule are examined for their use and feasibility as an improved UCA. The nested formulation provides contrast comparable to traditional formulations, specifically an SF6 microbubble coated by a DSPC PEG-3000 monolayer, with the advantage that contrast persists at least nine times longer in a mock clinical, in vitro setting. The effectiveness of the sample was measured using a contrast ratio in units of decibels (dB) which compares the brightness of the nested microbubbles to a reference value of a phantom tissue mimic. During a 40 min imaging study, six nesting formulations with average outer capsule diameters of 1.95, 2.53, 5.55, 9.95, 14.95, and 20.51 μm reached final contrast ratio values of 0.25, 2.35, 3.68, 4.51, 5.93, and 8.00 dB, respectively. The starting contrast ratio in each case was approximately 8 dB and accounts for the brightness attributed to the nesting shell. As compared with empty microcapsules (no microbubbles nested within), enhancement of the initial contrast ratio increased systematically with decreasing microcapsule size. The time required to reach a steady state in the temporal contrast ratio profile also varied with microcapsule diameter and was found to be 420 s for each of the four smallest shell diameters and 210 s and 150 s, respectively, for the largest two shell diameters. All nested formulations were longer-lived and gave higher final contrast ratios than a control sample comprising un-nested, but otherwise equivalent, microbubbles. Specifically, the contrast ratio of the un-nested microbubbles decreased to a negative value after 4 min of continuous ultrasound exposure with complete disappearance of the microbubbles after 15 min whereas all nested formulations maintained positive contrast ratio values for the duration of the 40 min trial. The results are consistent with two distinct stages of gas transport: in the first stage, passive diffusion occurs under ambient conditions across the microbubble monolayer within the first few minutes after formulation until the aqueous interior of the microcapsule is saturated with gas; in the second stage ultrasound drives additional gas dissolution even further due to pressure modulation. It is important to understand the chemistry and transport mechanisms of this contrast agent under the influence of ultrasound to attain better perspicacity for enhanced applications in imaging. Results from this study will facilitate future preclinical studies and clinical applications of nested microbubbles for therapeutic and diagnostic imaging.

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