Immune cells utilize acetylcholine as a paracrine-signaling molecule. Many white blood cells express components of the cholinergic signaling pathway, and these are up-regulated when immune cells are activated. However, in vivo molecular imaging of cholinergic signaling in the context of inflammation has not previously been investigated.Methods
We performed positron emission tomography (PET) using the glucose analogue 18F-FDG, and 11C-donepezil and 18F-FEOBV, markers of acetylcholinesterase and the vesicular acetylcholine transporter, respectively. Mice were inoculated subcutaneously with Staphylococcus aureus, and PET scanned at 24, 72, 120, and 144 h post-inoculation. Four pigs with post-operative abscesses were also imaged. Finally, we present initial data from human patients with infections, inflammation, and renal and lung cancer.Results
In mice, the FDG uptake in abscesses peaked at 24 h and remained stable. The 11C-donepezil and 18F-FEOBV uptake displayed progressive increase, and at 120–144 h was nearly at the FDG level. Moderate 11C-donepezil and slightly lower 18F-FEOBV uptake were seen in pig abscesses. PCR analyses suggested that the 11C-donepezil signal in inflammatory cells is derived from both acetylcholinesterase and sigma-1 receptors. In humans, very high 11C-donepezil uptake was seen in a lobar pneumonia and in peri-tumoral inflammation surrounding a non-small cell lung carcinoma, markedly superseding the 18F-FDG uptake in the inflammation. In a renal clear cell carcinoma no 11C-donepezil uptake was seen.Discussion
The time course of cholinergic tracer accumulation in murine abscesses was considerably different from 18F-FDG, demonstrating in the 11C-donepezil and 18F-FEOBV image distinct aspects of immune modulation. Preliminary data in humans strongly suggest that 11C-donepezil can exhibit more intense accumulation than 18F-FDG at sites of chronic inflammation. Cholinergic PET imaging may therefore have potential applications for basic research into cholinergic mechanisms of immune modulation, but also clinical applications for diagnosing infections, inflammatory disorders, and cancer inflammation.
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