An orthotopic murine model of human spinal metastasis: histological and functional correlations

Laboratory investigation

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There is currently no reproducible animal model of human spinal metastasis that allows for laboratory study of the human disease. Consequently, the authors sought to develop an orthotopic model of spinal metastasis by using a human lung cancer cell line, and to correlate neurological decline with tumor growth.


To establish a model of spinal metastasis, the authors used a transperitoneal surgical approach to implant PC-14 lung tumors into the L-3 vertebral body of nude mice via a drill hole. In 24 animals, motor function was scored daily by using the validated semiquantitative Basso-Beattie-Bresnahan (BBB) scale. A second group of 26 animals (6 or 7 per time point) were sacrificed at specific times, and the spines were removed, sectioned, and stained. Canal compromise was analyzed quantitatively by determining the ratio of the area of the neural elements to the area of the spinal canal on histological sections (neural/canal ratio). Correlations between BBB score and histological evaluation of tumor growth were assessed.


Lung cancer xenografts grew in all animals undergoing functional evaluation (24 mice) according to a reliable and reproducible time course, with paraplegia occurring at a median interval of 30 days following tumor implantation (95% CI 28.1–31.9 days). Importantly, the analysis defined 4 key milestones based on components of the BBB score; these were observed in all animals, were consistent, and correlated with histological progression of tumor. From Days 1 to 14, the mean BBB score declined from 21 to 19. The animals progressed from normal walking with the tail up to walking with the tail constantly touching the ground (milestone 1). The median time to tail dragging was 12 days (95% CI 10.8–13.2). Histological studies on Day 14 demonstrated that tumor had progressed from partial to complete VB infiltration, with initial compression of the neural elements and epidural tumor extension to adjacent levels (mean neural/canal ratio 0.32 ± 0.05, 7 mice). From Days 15 to 20/21 (left/right leg), the mean BBB score declined from 19 to 14. Animals showed gait deterioration, with the development of dorsal stepping (milestone 2). The median time to dorsal stepping was 21 days (95% CI 19.4–22.6) in the left hindlimb and 23 days (95% CI 20.6–25.4) in the right hindlimb. Histological studies on Day 21 demonstrated an increase in the severity of the neural element compression, with tumor extending to adjacent epidural and osseous levels (mean neural/canal ratio 0.19 ± 0.05, 6 mice). From Days 22 to 26/27 (left/right leg), the mean BBB score declined from 14 to 8. Animals had progressive difficulty ambulating, to the point where they showed only sweeping movements of the hindlimb (milestone 3). The median time to hindlimb sweeping was 26 days (95% CI 23.6–28.4) and 28 days (95% CI 27.1–28.9) in the left and right hindlimbs, respectively. Histological studies on Day 28 revealed progressive obliteration of the spinal canal (mean neural/canal ratio 0.09 ± 0.01, 7 mice). From Days 29 to 36, the animals progressed to paralysis (milestone 4). The median time to paralysis was 29 days (95% CI 27.6–30.4) and 30 days (95% CI 28.1–31.9) in the left and right hindlimbs, respectively.


The authors have developed an orthotopic murine model of human spinal metastasis in which neurological decline reproducibly correlates with severity of tumor progression. Although developed for lung cancer, this model can be expanded to study other types of metastatic or primary spinal tumors. Ultimately, this will allow testing of targeted therapies against specific tumor types.

Abbreviations used in this paper: BBB = Basso-Beattie-Bresnahan; BMS = Basso Mouse Scale; IVP = internal venous plexus; PMMA = polymethylmethacrylate; VB = vertebral body.
Article Information

Contributor Notes

Address correspondence to: Frederick F. Lang, M.D., Department of Neurosurgery, M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, 1515 Holcombe Boulevard, Box 442, Houston, Texas. 77030. email:

© AANS, except where prohibited by US copyright law.

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