Authors: Eleanor M. Donnelly, Kelsey P. Kubelick, Diego S. Dumani, and Stanislav Y. Emelianov


Regenerative therapies using stem cells have great potential for treating neurodegenerative diseases and traumatic injuries in the spinal cord. In spite of significant research efforts, many therapies fail at the clinical phase. As stem cell technologies advance toward clinical use, there is a need for a minimally invasive, safe, affordable, and real-time imaging technique that allows for the accurate and safe monitoring of stem cell delivery in the operating room. In this work, we present a combined ultrasound and photoacoustic imaging tool to provide image-guided needle placement and monitoring of nanoparticle-labeled stem cell delivery into the spinal cord. We successfully tagged stem cells using gold nanospheres and provided image-guided delivery of stem cells into the spinal cord in real-time, detecting as few as 1000 cells. Ultrasound and photoacoustic imaging was used to guide needle placement for direct stem cell injection to minimize the risk of needle shear and accidental injury and to improve therapeutic outcomes with accurate, localized stem cell delivery. Following injections of various volumes of cells, three-dimensional ultrasound and photoacoustic images allowed the visualization of stem cell distribution along the spinal cord, showing the potential to monitor the migration of the cells in the future. The feasibility of quantitative imaging was also shown by correlating the total photoacoustic signal over the imaging volume to the volume of cells injected. Overall, the presented method may allow clinicians to utilize imaged-guided delivery for more accurate and safer stem cell delivery to the spinal cord.

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