In vivo molecular imaging tools are critically important for determining the role played by cell trafficking in biological processes and cellular therapies. However, existing tools measure average cell behavior and not the kinetics and migration routes of individual cells inside the body. Furthermore, efflux and non-specific accumulation of contrast agents are confounding factors, leading to inaccurate estimation of cell distribution in vivo. In view of these challenges, we report the development of a cellular GPS capable of tracking single cells inside living subjects with exquisite sensitivity. We use mesoporous silica nanoparticles (MSN) to concentrate 68Ga radioisotope into live cells and inject these cells into live mice. From the pattern of annihilation photons detected by positron emission tomography (PET), we infer, in real time, the position of individual cells with respect to anatomical landmarks derived from X-ray computed tomography (CT). To demonstrate this technique, a single human breast cancer cell was tracked in a mouse model of experimental metastasis. The cell arrested in the lungs 2-3 seconds after tail-vein injection. Its average velocity was estimated at around 50 mm/s, consistent with blood flow rate. Other cells were tracked after injection through other routes, but no motion was detected within 10 min of acquisition. Single-cell tracking could be applied to determine the kinetics of cell trafficking and arrest during the earliest phase of the metastatic cascade, the trafficking of immune cells during cancer immunotherapy, or the distribution of cells after transplantation in regenerative medicine.
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