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Gd-based protein cage nanoparticles provide enhanced r1 relaxivity and detect experimental atherosclerosis


Develop a highly sensitive T1 contrast agent based on chemically attaching a multitude of chelated Gd molecules constrained within a protein cage structure.


A T1 nanoparticle contrast agent showing high r1 relaxivity is desired to provide more sensitive molecular/cellular imaging with reduced Gd dose, and may have more clinical utility than T2* (e.g., iron-based) approaches. Tethering multiple Gd-chelates to a supramolecular platform is a promising strategy to increase r1 relaxivity, as rotational correlation time of the Gd ions can become significantly larger which is highly favorable for efficient r1 relaxivity. Here we utilize a small heat shock protein cage (Hsp) with a 12nm exterior diameter and a 9nm interior cavity, as a platform to anchor Gd-DTPA.


1) Material development and evaluation

Hsp was purified from an E. coli expression system. An azide-alkyne based click reaction is cycled to produce a branched polymer network in the interior of the protein cage (Fig 1). The polymer results in a stable network containing Gd-DTPA, as the azide-containing monomer has the Gd chelate attached prior to polymer generation.

Figure 1
figure 1

Illustration of Hsp-brach polymer with Gd.

2) In vivo imaging of vascular inflammation

FVB mice underwent left carotid ligation after 4 weeks of high-fat diet and diabetes induction by streptozotocin. Two weeks later, Hsp-Gd or Magnevist (Gd-DTPA) was intravenously injected at a dose of 20µmol Gd/kg (one-fifth the typical clinical dose). Mice were imaged on a whole-body 3T MRI scanner (Signa HDx, GE Healthcare) with a 50mT/m, 150T/m/s gradient system and a phased array mouse coil (RAPID MR International), using a T1-weighted fast spin echo sequence (TR/TE=400ms/15ms, slice thickness=1mm, FOV=3cm, matrix=256x256) before injection and 4h after injection.


In vitro analysis of Hsp-Gd showed about 160 Gd-DTPA molecules per cage. At 0.73T, the ionic (per Gd) r1 value is 25mM-1sec-1 and the particle r1 value is 4,200mM-1sec-1 (Fig 2). At 3T, the ionic and particle r1 values are 9.7 mM-1sec-1 and 1600 mM-1sec-1, respectively. The ionic r1 value is nearly 3 times higher than that of Magnevist. The macrophage-rich left carotid lesion, but not the non-ligated right carotid, was clearly detected on T1-weighted MR imaging 4h after injection of Hsp-Gd, whereas the same lesion was hardly detected after Magnevist injection (Fig. 3).

Figure 2
figure 2

Graph of r1 measurement at varying field.

Figure 3
figure 3

T1-weighted FSE MRI of ligated left carotids in mice before and after injection of Hsp-Gd (top) or Magnevist (bottom). The macrophage-rich left carotid lesion was clearly enhanced by Hsp-Gd, but not in the non-ligated right carotid artery or either carotid artery after Magnevist injection.


Gd can be effectively incorporated into polymer-incorporated protein cage nanoparticles providing high r1 relaxivity. Hsp-Gd allows positive contrast imaging of macrophage-rich carotid atherosclerosis with low Gd dosing. Thus, Gd-based protein cages are promising atherosclerosis imaging agents.

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Open Access This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( ), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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Liepold, L.O., Uchida, M., Abedin, M.J. et al. Gd-based protein cage nanoparticles provide enhanced r1 relaxivity and detect experimental atherosclerosis. J Cardiovasc Magn Reson 13 (Suppl 1), P370 (2011).

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