The aims of this study were to determine if the morphological and functional changes induced by neural stem cell (NSC) grafts after transplantation into the rodent spinal cord can be detected using MR diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and, furthermore, if the DTI-derived mean diffusivity (MD) metric could be a biomarker for cell transplantation in spinal cord injury (SCI).
A spinal contusion was produced at the T-8 vertebral level in 40 Sprague Dawley rats that were separated into 4 groups, including a sham group (injury without NSC injection), NSC control group (injury with saline injection), co-injection control group (injury with Prograf), and the experimental group (injury with NSC and Prograf injection). The NSC injection was completed 1 week after injury into the site of injury and the rats in the experimental group were compared to the rats from the sham, NSC control, and co-injection groups. The DTI index, MD, was assessed in vivo at 2, 5, and 10 weeks and ex vivo at 10 weeks postinjury on a 9.4-T Bruker scanner using a spin-echo imaging sequence. DTI data of the cervical spinal cord from the sham surgery, injury with saline injection, injury with injection of Prograf only, and injury with C17.2 NSC and Prograf injection were examined to evaluate if cellular proliferation induced by intrathoracic C17.2 engraftment was detectable in a noninvasive manner.
At 5 weeks after injury, the average fractional anisotropy, longitudinal diffusion (LD) and radial diffusion (RD) coefficients, and MD of water (average of the RD and LD eigenvalues in the stem cell line–treated group) increased to an average of 1.44 × 10−3 sec/mm2 in the cervical segments, while the control groups averaged 0.98 × 10−3 s/mm2. Post hoc Tukey's honest significant difference tests demonstrated that the transplanted stem cells had significantly higher MD values than the other groups (p = 0.032 at 5 weeks). In vivo and ex vivo findings at 10 weeks displayed similar results. This statistical difference between the stem cell line and the other groups was maintained at the 10-week postinjury in vivo and ex vivo time points.
These results indicate that the DTI-derived MD metric collected from noninvasive imaging techniques may provide useful biomarker indices for transplantation interventions that produce changes in the spinal cord structure and function. Though promising, the results demonstrated here suggest additional work is needed before implementation in a clinical setting.