Theranostics 2018; 8(1):141-155. doi:10.7150/thno.19658 This issue

Research Paper

Ultrasound Molecular Imaging of VEGFR-2 in Clear-Cell Renal Cell Carcinoma Tracks Disease Response to Antiangiogenic and Notch-Inhibition Therapy

Juan D. Rojas1, Fanglue Lin1, Yun-Chen Chiang2, Anna Chytil3, Diana C. Chong4, Victoria L. Bautch2,4,5, W. Kimryn Rathmell3, Paul A. Dayton1,2✉

1. Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering, The University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University, Chapel Hill, North Carolina;
2. Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina;
3. Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology and Oncology, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tennessee;
4. Curriculum in Genetics and Molecular Biology, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina;
5. Department of Biology, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY-NC) license ( See for full terms and conditions.
Rojas JD, Lin F, Chiang YC, Chytil A, Chong DC, Bautch VL, Rathmell WK, Dayton PA. Ultrasound Molecular Imaging of VEGFR-2 in Clear-Cell Renal Cell Carcinoma Tracks Disease Response to Antiangiogenic and Notch-Inhibition Therapy. Theranostics 2018; 8(1):141-155. doi:10.7150/thno.19658. Available from

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Graphic abstract

Metastatic clear-cell renal cell carcinoma (ccRCC) affects thousands of patients worldwide each year. Antiangiogenic therapy has been shown to have beneficial effects initially, but resistance is eventually developed. Therefore, it is important to accurately track the response of cancer to different therapeutics in order to appropriately adjust the therapy to maximize efficacy. Change in tumor volume is the current gold standard for determining efficacy of treatment. However, functional variations can occur much earlier than measurable volume changes. Contrast-enhanced ultrasound (CEUS) is an important tool for assessing tumor progression and response to therapy, since it can monitor functional changes in the physiology. In this study, we demonstrate how ultrasound molecular imaging (USMI) can accurately track the evolution of the disease and molecular response to treatment.

Methods A cohort of NSG (NOD/scid/gamma) mice was injected with ccRCC cells and treated with either the VEGF inhibitor SU (Sunitinib malate, Selleckchem, TX, USA) or the Notch pathway inhibitor GSI (Gamma secretase inhibitor, PF-03084014, Pfizer, New York, NY, USA), or started on SU and later switched to GSI (Switch group). The therapies used in the study focus on disrupting angiogenesis and proper vessel development. SU inhibits signaling of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), which is responsible for the sprouting of new vasculature, and GSI inhibits the Notch pathway, which is a key factor in the correct maturation of newly formed vasculature. Microbubble contrast agents targeted to VEGFR-2 (VEGF Receptor) were delivered as a bolus, and the bound agents were imaged in 3D after the free-flowing contrast was cleared from the body. Additionally, the tumors were harvested at the end of the study and stained for CD31.

Results The results show that MI can detect changes in VEGFR-2 expression in the group treated with SU within a week of the start of treatment, while differences in volume only become apparent after the mice have been treated for three weeks. Furthermore, USMI can detect response to therapy in 92% of cases after 1 week of treatment, while the detection rate is only 40% for volume measurements. The amount of targeting for the GSI and Control groups was high throughout the duration of the study, while that of the SU and Switch groups remained low. However, the amount of targeting in the Switch group increased to levels similar to those of the Control group after the treatment was switched to GSI. CD31 staining indicates significantly lower levels of patent vasculature for the SU group compared to the Control and GSI groups. Therefore, the results parallel the expected physiological changes in the tumor, since GSI promotes angiogenesis through the VEGF pathway, while SU inhibits it.

Conclusion This study demonstrates that MI can track disease progression and assess functional changes in tumors before changes in volume are apparent, and thus, CEUS can be a valuable tool for assessing response to therapy in disease. Future work is required to determine whether levels of VEGFR-2 targeting correlate with eventual survival outcomes.

Keywords: Contrast-Enhanced Ultrasound, Ultrasound Molecular Imaging, Response to Therapy, Notch Inhibition, Antiangiogenic Therapy.