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Imaging Technology Devised to Identify Infection Response

Eric Skaar (Vanderbilt University)

Eric Skaar (Vanderbilt University)

Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville developed techniques using current imaging technologies to generate a three-dimensional view of the body’s response to infection. The findings of the team led by pathologist Eric Skaar (pictured right) appear in a recent issue of the journal Cell Host and Microbe; paid subscription required.

The Vanderbilt team combines magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and imaging mass spectrometry to visualize the inflammatory response to bacterial infections, and tested the techniques in mice. Skaar and colleagues made use of animal imaging technologies at Vanderbilt’s Institute of Imaging Science and imaging mass spectrometry at the university’s Mass Spectrometry Research Center. The directors of those facilities — John Gore and Richard Caprioli respectively — were among the co-authors of the journal article.

The researchers sought to produce images of infections in three dimensions, within the whole animal, as well as identify the proteins produced at sites of infection. MRI scans provide detailed anatomical images of tissue damage, and is used routinely in medical diagnosis. Imaging mass spectrometry directly measures proteins, lipids, and other metabolites and maps their distribution in a biopsy or other tissue sample.

The team first infected mice with Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium that causes human disease. The Institute of Imaging Science then conducted the MRIs of the infected mice, followed by imaging mass spectrometry tests at the Mass Spectrometry Research Center. A radiology specialist developed algorithms combining the images to show consolidated 3-D views of the inflammatory response.

The technologies, say the researchers, make it possible to see a single image of an infected animal, look at how proteins of the immune system are responding, and identify where the infected tissue is located. Imaging the inflammatory response can be applied not only to infections, but to cancer and autoimmune diseases as well. Imaging mass spectrometry techniques are invasive, however, requiring tissue samples like those taken to diagnose cancer.

Skaar suggests there may be more pay-off from the research, as they apply the technology to identify proteins that “are important at the interface between the host and the pathogen, the battleground between the immune system and the bacteria.” Identification of these proteins, says Skaar, can lead to discovery of new biomarkers for infection, which could improve diagnostic tools, or offer new targets for therapeutic intervention.

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