Molecular imaging of MMP activity discriminates unstable from stable plaque phenotypes in shear-stress induced murine atherosclerosis


As atherosclerotic plaque ruptures are the primary cause of ischaemic events, their preventive identification by imaging remains a clinical challenge. Matrix metalloproteinases (MMP) are involved in plaque progression and destabilisation and are therefore promising targets to characterize rupture-prone unstable plaques. This study aims at evaluating MMP imaging to discriminate unstable from stable plaque phenotypes.


ApoE deficient mice (ApoE-/-) on a high cholesterol diet underwent implantation of a tapered cuff around the right common carotid artery (CCA) inducing a highly inflamed atherosclerotic plaque upstream (US) and a more stable plaque phenotype downstream (DS) of the cuff. 8 weeks after surgery, the MMP inhibitor-based photoprobe Cy5.5-AF443 was administered i.v. 3h prior to in situ and ex vivo fluorescence reflectance imaging of the CCAs. Thereafter, CCAs were analysed regarding plaque size, presence of macrophages, and MMP-2 and MMP-9 concentrations by immunohistochemistry and ELISA.


We found a significantly higher uptake of Cy5.5-AF443 in US as compared to DS plaques in situ (1.29 vs. 1.06 plaque-to-background ratio; p<0.001), which was confirmed by ex vivo measurements. Immunohistochemistry revealed a higher presence of macrophages, MMP-2 and MMP-9 in US compared to DS plaques. Accordingly, MMP-2 concentrations were significantly higher in US plaques (47.2±7.6 vs. 29.6±4.6 ng/mg; p<0.05).


In the ApoE-/- cuff model MMP-2 and MMP-9 activities are significantly higher in upstream low shear stress-induced unstable atherosclerotic plaques as compared to downstream more stable plaque phenotypes. MMP inhibitor-based fluorescence molecular imaging allows visualization of these differences in shear stress-induced atherosclerosis.