In vivo production of fluorine-18 in a chicken egg tumor model of breast cancer for proton therapy range verification

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Range verification of clinical protontherapy systems via positron-emission tomography (PET) is not a mature technology, suffering from two major issues: insufficient signal from low-energy protons in the Bragg peak area and biological washout of PET emitters. The use of contrast agents including O-18, Zn-68 or Cu-63, isotopes with a high cross section for low-energy protons in nuclear reactions producing PET emitters, has been proposed to enhance the PET signal in the last millimeters of the proton path. However, it remains a challenge to achieve sufficient concentrations of these isotopes in the target volume. Here we investigate the possibilities of O-18-enriched water (18-W), a potential contrast agent that could be incorporated in large proportions in live tissues by replacing regular water. We hypothesize that 18-W could also mitigate the problem of biological washout, as PET (F-18) isotopes created inside live cells would remain trapped in the form of fluoride anions (F-), allowing its signal to be detected even hours after irradiation. To test our hypothesis, we designed an experiment with two main goals: first, prove that 18-W can incorporate enough O-18 into a living organism to produce a detectable signal from F-18 after proton irradiation, and second, determine the amount of activity that remains trapped inside the cells. The experiment was performed on a chicken embryo chorioallantoic membrane tumor model of head and neck cancer. Seven eggs with visible tumors were infused with 18-W and irradiated with 8-MeV protons (range in water: 0.74 mm), equivalent to clinical protons at the end of particle range. The activity produced after irradiation was detected and quantified in a small-animal PET-CT scanner, and further studied by placing ex-vivo tumours in a gamma radiation detector. In the acquired images, specific activity of F-18 (originating from 18-W) could be detected in the tumour area of the alive chicken embryo up to 9 h after irradiation, which confirms that low-energy protons can indeed produce a detectable PET signal if a suitable contrast agent is employed. Moreover, dynamic PET studies in two of the eggs evidenced a minimal effect of biological washout, with 68% retained specific F-18 activity at 8 h after irradiation. Furthermore, ex-vivo analysis of 4 irradiated tumours showed that up to 3% of oxygen atoms in the targets were replaced by O-18 from infused 18-W, and evidenced an entrapment of 59% for specific activity of F-18 after washing, supporting our hypothesis that F- ions remain trapped within the cells. An infusion of 18-W can incorporate O-18 in animal tissues by replacing regular water inside cells, producing a PET signal when irradiated with low-energy protons that could be used for range verification in protontherapy. F-18 produced inside cells remains entrapped and suffers from minimal biological washout, allowing for a sharper localization with longer PET acquisitions. Further studies must evaluate the feasibility of this technique in dosimetric conditions closer to clinical practice, in order to define potential protocols for its use in patients.
This article was funded by Comunidad de Madrid (B2017/BMD-3888, 2017-T1/BMD-5468), European Union (793576), Spanish Government (SAF2016-76588-C2-1-R, RTI2018-098868-B-I00, RTI2018-098868-B-I00, BBVA, BBM-TRA-0041, BBM-TRA-0041).
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