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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
JACC Cardiovasc Imaging. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 June 1.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC2752220

Non-invasive Evaluation of Cardiac Allograft Rejection by Cellular and Functional MRI

Yijen L. Wu, Ph.D., Qing Ye, M.D., Kazuya Sato, M.D., Lesley M. Foley, B.S., T. Kevin Hitchens, Ph.D., and Chien Ho, Ph.D.



The goal of this study is to use cardiac MRI to establish sensitive and reliable indexes for non-invasive detection of acute cardiac allograft rejection.


Appropriate surveillance for acute allograft rejection is vitally important for graft survival. The current gold standard for diagnosing and staging rejection after organ transplantation is endomyocardial biopsy, which is not only invasive but also prone to sampling errors. The motivation of this study is to establish MRI-based alternative that is non-invasive and sensitive for early detection of allograft rejection before reversible organ damage occurs.


We have developed a non-invasive two-pronged approach to detect acute cardiac allograft rejection using a rodent working heart and lung transplantation model. We use MRI to detect immune-cell infiltration at sites of rejection by monitoring the accumulation of dextran-coated ultra-small superparamagnetic-iron-oxide (USPIO)-labeled immune cells (in particular macrophages) in-vivo. Simultaneously, we use MRI tagging and strain analysis to detect regional myocardial function loss resulting from acute rejection.


Immune cells, mainly macrophages and monocytes, are made visible with MRI by in-vivo labeling with USPIO. Our data show that immune-cell infiltration in cardiac allograft rejection is highly heterogeneous. Thus, it is not surprising to find inconsistencies between rejection and endomyocardial biopsy results because of the limited number and small samples available. This spatially heterogeneous pattern has not otherwise been observed. Tagged MRI and strain analysis show that, like immune-cell infiltration, ventricular functional loss is also highly heterogeneous. Although changes in global systolic function are generally not observed until the later stages of rejection, our data reveal that a functional index derived from local strain analysis correlates well with rejection grades, which may be a more sensitive parameter for detecting early rejection.


Cardiac MRI is non-invasive and provides a 3D, whole-heart perspective of the rejection status, potentially allowing more reliable detection of acute allograft rejection.

Keywords: MRI, non-invasive detection of acute cardiac rejection, cardiac transplantation, biopsy


With the advances in immunosuppressive therapy and organ preservation, survival rate and quality of life after heart transplantation has improved considerably. Although decreased from the early 1980s, acute cellular rejection still occurs in 40 to 70% of patients during the first six months following surgery (1), and remains a challenge for battling mortality (2). The occurrence of acute rejection episodes often is the most predictive factor for the later development of chronic rejection. Therefore, the development of new, accurate, and non-invasive methods for monitoring of acute allograft rejection after heart transplantation is of vital importance.

Acute rejection is traditionally diagnosed by endomyocardial biopsy, which carries finite risks of morbidity and mortality due to its invasive nature, and is also prone to sampling error because of the limited sizes and locations of tissue available, particularly in pediatric patients. More importantly, discrepancies have been found between biopsy-based diagnosis and actual rejection (36). Humoral rejection, which accounts for most of the biopsy-negative episodes of rejection (7), is associated with accelerated graft CAD, increased graft loss, and increased mortality. The discordance among biopsy, actual rejection, and patient outcome demands a reliable and non-invasive alternative to biopsy for detecting acute rejection.

Uncoupling the threshold for anti-rejection therapy from histological biopsy grading and linking it more closely to graft dysfunction has been suggested (6,8). However, commonly used imaging modalities, such as 2D echocardiography and nuclear imaging, are relatively insensitive to subtle changes in cardiac function. Functional changes resulting from acute rejection usually are barely detectable by these methods until later rejection stages, when it may be too late for therapeutic intervention.

The goal of this study is to develop non-invasive imaging methodology to better detect early-stage rejection prior to the development of irreversible organ damage. Our laboratory has implemented a two-pronged approach with MRI to non-invasively monitor both immune-cell infiltration and cardiac function of the rejecting grafts simultaneously. Immune cells, particularly macrophages, are tracked with MRI by labeling them with dextran-coated USPIO nano-particles in vivo (913). Cardiac tagging and strain analysis are used to evaluate minute regional functional changes during the rejection process.



All rats used in the study were male inbred Brown Norway (BN; RT1n) and Dark Agouti (DA; RT1a) rats obtained from Harlan (Indianapolis, IN) with body weight between 180–250 grams each. The rats were housed individually and provided with food and water ad libitum. Animal protocols were approved by our Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. All animals received humane care in compliance with the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, published by the National Institutes of Health.

In this study, 6 naïve BN rats were used for native heart controls. For the transplantation models, 20 rat transplantation pairs were used for experimental allograft hearts and 13 rat transplantation pairs were used for isograft controls.

Animal Model

This study employs a novel rodent heterotopic working heart and lung model (Fig. 1B) using a DA→BN transplantation pair (10,11), with DA→DA and BN→BN transplantation as the syngeneic control. The recipient receives an additional heart and lung in the abdomen. While the native organs support life, the entire rejection process of the grafts can be investigated without serious systemic physiological alteration or mortality of the recipient from severe rejection. Although appropriate for studying immunological aspects of rejection, the single-anastomosis model (Fig. 1A) used in our earlier studies (12) is not suitable for functional investigation, due to insufficient loading, via gurgitation only. The bi-ventricular double-anastomosis working heart model (Fig. 1B) used in this study preserves intact pulmonary circulation and physiological pressure and volume loading by partially ligating the proximal end of the IVC. Although SV may vary, EF is near 100%, and isografts exhibit LV strains similar to native hearts (Fig. 2). The day of transplantation surgery is day 0. Histological examination (Fig. 3) shows that allografts exhibit Grade II rejection on post-operational day (POD) 4–5, Grade III rejection on POD5 to 6, and severe Grade IV rejection on POD7.

Figure 1
Abdominal heterotopic transplanted heart and lung models
Figure 2
Temporal courses of strains for native and isograft hearts
Figure 3
Pathology for transplanted hearts

In-vivo Labeling of USPIO

Dextran-coated USPIO particles are synthesized in our laboratory according to published methods (14,15) with slight modifications (16). USPIO particles (~27 nm in size) are administered intravenously one day prior to MRI with the dosage ranging from 1.5 to 6 mg iron per animal.

In-vivo MRI

Rats were first sedated with isofluorane, then intubated and ventilated. Anesthesia was maintained with a 1:1 O2/N2O gas mixture and 2% isofluorane. Leads were placed on both hind limbs for detecting the ECG of the transplanted heart in the abdomen. Body temperature was maintained at 36.5±1 °C using a rectal probe and water pad with a feedback controlled circulating water bath.

In-vivo MR imaging was carried out on a Bruker Biospec 4.7-T/40-cm system equipped with 12-cm, 40-Gauss/cm shielded gradients with a 5.5-cm home-built surface coil. ECG and respiration gated T2*-weighted images were acquired with a gradient-echo sequence, and tagging was achieved with a modified DANTE sequence. Ten short-axis slices were used to cover the entire volume of the heart. Equivalent temporal resolution for the cine loops was about 16.5 to 19.5 ms per frame, with 10 to 12 phases per cardiac cycle. MR images were acquired with the following parameters: TR = one cardiac cycle (~180 ms); TE = 4 to 5 ms for tagging and 8 to 10 ms for T2*-weighted imaging; FOV = 3–4 cm; slice thickness = 1–1.5 mm; in-plane resolution = 117–156 μm.

Histological Analysis and Evaluation of Rejection Grade

The degree of rejection was determined by pathological examination immediately following the MRI studies. Transplanted hearts were extirpated and fixed in formalin. The rejection grade of the heart grafts was determined histopathologically according to the updated International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation (ISHLT) criteria (17,18) in a blinded manner by the Transplantation Pathology Laboratory of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Strain and Wall-Motion Analysis

Strains are values that quantify the extent of ventricular deformation throughout cardiac phases: stretching/elongation or compression/shortening. Strains are categorized into two main classes in relation to the heart axes: normal strains are defined in relation to the short-axis planes, and principal strains are defined in relation to the direction of the myocardial fiber bundles. Three orthogonal strain-tensor sets define normal strains: Ecc, Err, and Ell, in which strain-tensors are tangent to the epicardium surface, perpendicular to the epicardium surface towards the center of the LV, and perpendicular to the short-axis plane along the long-axis of the LV, respectively. Three orthogonal strain-tensor sets to define principal strains: the E1 is orthogonal to the fiber direction; the E2 is parallel to the fiber direction; and E3 is perpendicular to these two. Only four of the six strain-classes are calculated for the transplanted hearts in this study because the through-plane motions are not observed by the short-axis multi-slice 2D-tagged MRI used in this study.

Strains were analyzed by the HARP method (19) with software obtained from Diagnosoft, Inc. Although HARP is capable of calculating strains in all 3-heart layers (epi-cardium, mid-wall, and endo-cardium), only the mid-wall layer values are used in this study, because the recent MESA study showed that the mid-wall layer yields the best inter-observer and intra-observer consistency (20).

Statistical Analysis

The results are presented as mean ± standard deviation (SD). All results were analyzed by a 2-tailed t-test.

Statement of Responsibility

The authors had full access to the data and take responsibility for its integrity. All authors have read and agreed to the manuscript as written.


Tracking macrophage infiltration in vivo with USPIO labeling

Cells can be visualized with MRI by labeling them with contrast agents like USPIO. Iron-oxide particles generate a local magnetic field gradients, and the loss of water proton spin coherence can be detected as signal loss in T2*-weighted images.

One day after administration of USPIO, accumulation of labeled immune cells was identified as patches of hypointensity on T2*-weighted images of allograft hearts (Fig. 4C, D, E). Histological examination indicates that iron particles are mostly found in ED1+ macrophages (912). T2*-weighted images of isograft control hearts display little or no areas of hypointensity (Fig. 4A, B). In this in-vivo-labeling scheme, both residing and circulating macrophages can ingest USPIO particles.

Figure 4
T2*-weighted image showing USPIO-labeled immune cell infiltration in transplanted hearts

Macrophage-infiltrated foci, in both LV and RV, are found to be spatially heterogeneous. It is, therefore, not surprising to find discrepancies in diagnosing rejection with biopsy, where the small biopsy needles are generally limited to sampling points in the anteroseptal wall of the RV. Tracking immune-cell infiltration with MRI is non-invasive and provides 3D whole-volume perspectives of the overall rejection status without the pitfalls of limited sampling.

Tracking regional functional loss in vivo with tagged MRI and strain analysis

To discern if the spatial heterogeneity of acute rejection after heart transplantation is also manifested in ventricular function, tagged MRI was used during the same imaging session as the cellular imaging to detect regional wall-motion abnormality.

Tagged MRI (Fig. 5) places signal-void grids on the myocardium at ED by saturating proton spins at designated planes in space prior to the imaging sequence. Because the rate of the signal recovery is slower than the cardiac motion, these tagged lines (signal-void-grids) remain during the cardiac cycle and serve to mark motion of the myocardium. Tagged lines in a healthy heart show maximum displacement and curvature at ES throughout the LV wall, as observed in native hearts (Fig. 5F) and isograft controls (Fig. 5G). In allograft hearts, although EF remains close to 95%, some tagged lines do not show similar displacement or remains straight at ES, revealing areas with compromised wall motion (Fig. 5H, I, J).

Figure 5
MRI Tagging

The extent of tissue deformation observed by tagging can be quantified by strain analysis. Four strain types were analyzed, however, only the Ecc strain (tangent to the epicardium surface), is shown in this paper due to space limitation. Figure 6A shows mean Ecc values for transplanted hearts with different degrees of rejection. Although global cardiac functional parameters, such as SV (Fig. 6B) or EF (Fig. 6C), do not degrade according to rejection grades very much, allografts with rejection greater than Grade II all show a decrease in mean Ecc. This is indicative that strain analysis could be a more sensitive measure of function than conventional modes of evaluating cardiac function. However, mean Ecc is poor at discriminating between Grade II and Grade III rejection.

Figure 6
Mean Ecc (A), stroke volume (SV, B), and ejection fraction (EF, C) for native and transplanted hearts

To investigate regional strain, the LV wall is divided into 6 regions (Figs. 7 and and8A),8A), following the standard cardiology convention. Isografts (Fig. 7A), exhibit consistent Ecc throughout different sub-regions of the LV wall. Allografts (Fig. 7B, C) exhibit healthy strains in some regions, but compromised strains in other areas, showing that the functional loss in rejection is heterogeneous. Despite having similar mean Ecc, Grade III (Fig. 7C) allografts have more regions with compromised strains than Grade II (Fig. 7B) allografts, and can thus be distinguished. Regional strain analysis is therefore a more sensitive way to dissect regional dysfunction and rejection grade than global functional parameters.

Figure 7
Regional Ecc for different heart regions
Figure 8
Local Ecc for different heart locations

However, unlike CAD, rejection does not necessarily follow certain coronary artery perfusion domains, and as a result, the actual phenomenon might be lost in the conventional 6-heart-region division. Thus, starting at the interception with RV on the anterior wall, 48 probe-points were placed evenly throughout the LV mid-wall to further dissect regional function. Figure 8B shows a polar plot probe-point Ecc values at different rejection grades. The isograft control shows relatively consistent Ecc throughout the whole LV wall, whereas allografts have some stretches of probes exhibiting compromised low Ecc values.

The severity of rejection correlates with the number of compromised probe-points. Figure 9A graphically shows examples of compromised Ecc probe-points at different rejection grades. Probe-points are scored as compromised (black bars) if the Ecc value is lower than one standard deviation from the isograft mean. Figure 9B shows the Ecc strain index (% compromised probe-points) for transplanted isograft and allograft hearts. A high score indicates poor ventricular function that can be readily correlated with rejection grade.

Figure 9
Rejection grading by Ecc probe-point values

Simultaneously tracking regional functional loss and immune-cell infiltration in the same heart by in-vivo MRI

Figure 10 shows examples of non-invasive tracking of both immune-cell infiltration (left 2 columns) and regional wall motion (right 2 columns) at the same time. Pseudo-colors (Fig. 10D–F) are placed on top of the T2*-weighted MRI (Fig. 10A–C) to show regions having USPIO-labeled immune-cell infiltration. Ecc-strain values are color coded on tagged images (Fig. 10G–I). In addition, Ecc values obtained by the 48 probe-points are also plotted (Fig. 10J–L) for comparison. Although some areas with high USPIO-labeled-macrophage infiltration seem to largely correlate with areas with compromised Ecc, the sub-normal areas with the 2 modalities do not seem to match completely.

Figure 10
Simultaneous tracking of cellular infilt ration and function for 3 allografts

Although SNR and CNR from T2*-weighted images do not always exhibit a positive correlation with rejection grades, the areas identified as having USPIO-laden-macrophage-infiltration (Fig. 11A) does increase up to a moderate rejection grade, with no further increase observed from moderate rejection to severe rejection. Although both the volume with USPIO-laden-macrophage-infiltration and Ecc values do not correlate perfectly with rejection grades, they do correlate in the same heart (Fig. 11B). Regardless of the rejection grades, the hearts with higher infiltration volume exhibit lower Ecc values in most cases.

Figure 11
Quantitation for USPIO-cell-infiltration


Monitoring acute allograft rejection with MRI has the advantage of being non-invasive and providing 3D information on the whole heart, whereas biopsy is restricted to limited tissue samples. Our two-pronged approach, of monitoring both immune-cell infiltration and organ function, simultaneously can better diagnose episodes of acute allograft rejection.

It is known that discrepancies are observed clinically among biopsy, rejection, and organ dysfunction, even with the updated and improved pathological grading system (4). Variation could be due to subjective inter-pathologist interpretation. Alternatively, one may argue that mononuclear-cell infiltration may not be the only mechanism of acute cardiac rejection (8). Interestingly, our data reveal a different observation and explanation, namely that the infiltration of immune cells is highly heterogeneous, even in Grade III rejection. The mononuclear-cell infiltration can be expected to be even more sparse and inhomogeneous at earlier rejection phases (10). Therefore, biopsy with finite sampling sizes can miss the infiltrated sites, resulting in false diagnosis and a discrepancy between biopsy, actual rejection, and organ dysfunction. Because MRI can cover the whole volume of the heart, monitoring immune-cell infiltration with MRI could reveal overall distribution of mononuclear cells. Our approach of monitoring mononuclear-cell infiltration in vivo with MRI is not only non-invasive, but also potentially can provide a more accurate diagnosis. In combination with automated algorithms for detecting USPIO-laden mononuclear-cell infiltration foci (21), our approach may make accurate and objective diagnosis of cellular rejection possible.

USPIOs have been shown to possess low toxicity at the dosages used clinically, and the iron is metabolized by incorporating into normal endogenous iron pools (22). Immune cells, mainly macrophages, are readily labeled by direct intravenous administration of USPIO, with no need for cell isolation, or culture. This in-vivo labeling strategy also avoids possible un-wanted activation of immune cells, if cells are isolated, labeled ex-vivo, and re-introduced into patients. This in-vivo labeling approach is simple and makes clinical translation much more feasible than the ex-vivo cell-labeling methods. It is commonly accepted that T- and B- lymphocytes are the dominant cells responsible for the rejection and inflammatory processes. However, macrophages are present abundantly when rejection occurs. We have previously found that the numbers of both macrophages and T-cells increase during the rejection process (12,13). Thus, macrophages are a good target for in-vivo imaging for detecting rejection. This study and our earlier studies have shown that macrophage infiltration is indeed a useful index for acute rejection (913), possibly even for chronic rejection (23).

MR tagging is a powerful non-invasive tool for monitoring cardiac wall motion. Our results have shown that regional loss of function is highly heterogeneous, which is not easy to achieve with other functional and imaging modalities. These results are consistent with clinical observations, and emphasize that the correlation of organ dysfunction with acute allograft rejection is a better indicator of rejection than biopsy alone (6). Detailed local strain analysis provides a sensitive way to detect minute regional wall motion abnormality. HARP provides an easy and fast way for strain analysis, which can facilitate high-throughput strain analysis for clinical applications.

Although very informative, the strain maps are not straightforward for discerning mildly defected hearts, because even healthy hearts posses some variability in strains throughout different regions of LV myocardium. By using probe-points for analysis, areas with compromised strains can readily be identified; furthermore, the percentage of probe-points having compromised Ecc strain correlates well with rejection grades. One standard deviation from mean isograft Ecc values is used here as the criteria to distinguish “compromised” and “healthy” probe-points. However, this criterion obtained from our heterotopic model may not be readily applicable for human patients with orthotopic transplantation. Additional human studies to determine criteria for transplant patients will be necessary to translate this approach to the clinical setting.

In this study, although 4 different strain types were analyzed, only Ecc results are shown due to space limitation. There are no obvious differences in all 4 strain types based on our analysis. Further detailed analysis could be interesting to see whether a specific strain class is affected more by the rejection, and could be used as the most sensitive functional parameter for staging rejection.

Coupling cellular imaging of immune-cell infiltration and functional parameters provide additional power for detecting and grading rejection. Regional loss in the contractile function appears to correlates with the areas of the myocardium found to have significant USPIO-labeled-macrophage infiltration; however some mismatch was found. This mismatch could be due to mechanical, physiological, or electrical reasons. For example, myocytolysis or degenerated myocardium could physically affect contractile function of the neighboring myocardium; the contractile defect from one necrotic region could radiate to larger remote areas through connecting myocardial fiber; or electrical conductivity could be hindered or interrupted by the necrotic regions. Some mismatch found here may also results from pixel mismatch between the two methods. Better computational algorithms for precise pixel-by-pixel analysis and a larger sampling group will be beneficial for understanding the more detailed biomechanics of rejection.

SNR and CNR correspond with the amount of contrast agent found in the tissue, however, the number of iron-labeled cells that have accumulated in an image voxel is inherently difficult to quantify by T2*-contrast. In addition, the degree of immune cell labeling by direct in-vivo injection of contrast agent is not well controlled. These drawbacks, however, do not limit our method, since our results indicated that the absolute amount of cell infiltration may not be important for staging rejection by MRI. We have found out that the percentage of contrast-containing-volume and the profiles of histograms may be very useful for discerning areas with labeled-cell infiltration. Furthermore, although the extent of labeled-cell-infiltration and Ecc strain reduction themselves show some variations, the transplanted hearts with more labeled-cell infiltration exhibit poorer Ecc strains in most cases. This further testifies the advantage of using double-parameter diagnosis.

In conclusion, our results suggest that myocardial rejection is spatially highly heterogeneous, for both cellular infiltration and myocardial function. The immune-cell-infiltrated foci can be detected non-invasively with in-vivo USPIO labeling of immune cells, while regional functional loss can be determined by MR tagging and wall-motion analyses. This proof-of-concept study of our two-pronged approach illustrates a potentially sensitive diagnostic tool for detecting acute cardiac rejection. A more systematic investigation with larger sample sizes and different rejection grades will be needed to establish a reliable set of clinically relevant indexes. Monitoring rejection by MRI can be a better and safer alternative for routine rejection surveillance than biopsy.


magnetic resonance imaging
ultra-small superparamatic-iron-oxide
coronary artery disease
ejection fraction
stroke volume
post-operational day
left atrium
left ventricle
right atrium
right ventricle
inferior vena cava
superior vena cava
transverse relaxation time
echo time
repetition time
field of view
circumferential strains
radial thickening
longitudinal shortening


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