Theranostics 2022; 12(5):2162-2174. doi:10.7150/thno.68000 This issue

Research Paper

Multi-modal molecular imaging maps the correlation between tumor microenvironments and nanomedicine distribution

Nicole Strittmatter1,2, Jennifer I. Moss3, Alan M. Race4, Daniel Sutton1, Jaime Rodriguez Canales5, Stephanie Ling1, Edmond Wong6, Joanne Wilson7, Aaron Smith7, Colin Howes7, Josephine Bunch8, Simon T. Barry3*, Richard J.A. Goodwin1,9✉*, Marianne B. Ashford10✉*

1. Imaging and Data Analytics, Clinical Pharmacology & Safety Sciences, R&D, AstraZeneca, Cambridge, UK.
2. Department of Chemistry, Technical University of Munich, Garching, Germany.
3. Bioscience, Discovery, Oncology R&D, AstraZeneca, Cambridge, UK.
4. Institute of Medical Bioinformatics and Biostatistics, University of Marburg, Germany.
5. Translational Pathology & Biomarker Analysis, Translational Medicine, R&D Oncology, AstraZeneca, Gaithersburg, MD, USA.
6. Antibody Discovery and Protein Engineering (ADPE), R&D, AstraZeneca, Cambridge, UK.
7. DMPK, Oncology R&D, AstraZeneca, Cambridge, UK.
8. National Centre of Excellence in Mass Spectrometry Imaging (NiCE-MSI), National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, UK.
9. Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation, College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK.
10. Advanced Drug Delivery, Pharmaceutical Sciences, R&D, AstraZeneca, Macclesfield UK.
*Authors jointly supervised this research.

This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( See for full terms and conditions.
Strittmatter N, Moss JI, Race AM, Sutton D, Canales JR, Ling S, Wong E, Wilson J, Smith A, Howes C, Bunch J, Barry ST, Goodwin RJA, Ashford MB. Multi-modal molecular imaging maps the correlation between tumor microenvironments and nanomedicine distribution. Theranostics 2022; 12(5):2162-2174. doi:10.7150/thno.68000. Available from

File import instruction


Graphic abstract

Gaining insight into the heterogeneity of nanoparticle drug distribution within tumors would improve both design and clinical translation of nanomedicines. There is little data showing the spatio-temporal behavior of nanomedicines in tissues as current methods are not able to provide a comprehensive view of the nanomedicine distribution, released drug or its effects in the context of a complex tissue microenvironment.

Methods: A new experimental approach which integrates the molecular imaging and bioanalytical technologies MSI and IMC was developed to determine the biodistribution of total drug and drug metabolite delivered via PLA-PEG nanoparticles and to overlay this with imaging of the nanomedicine in the context of detailed tumor microenvironment markers. This was used to assess the nanomedicine AZD2811 in animals bearing three different pre-clinical PDX tumors.

Results: This new approach delivered new insights into the nanoparticle/drug biodistribution. Mass spectrometry imaging was able to differentiate the tumor distribution of co-dosed deuterated non-nanoparticle-formulated free drug alongside the nanoparticle-formulated drug by directly visualizing both delivery approaches within the same animal or tissue. While the IV delivered free drug was uniformly distributed, the nanomedicine delivered drug was heterogeneous. By staining for multiple biomarkers of the tumor microenvironment on the same tumor sections using imaging mass cytometry, co-registering and integrating data from both imaging modalities it was possible to determine the features in regions with highest nanomedicine distribution. Nanomedicine delivered drug was associated with regions higher in macrophages, as well as more stromal regions of the tumor. Such a comparison of complementary molecular data allows delineation of drug abundance in individual cell types and in stroma.

Conclusions: This multi-modal imaging solution offers researchers a better understanding of drug and nanocarrier distribution in complex tissues and enables data-driven drug carrier design.

Keywords: nanomedicine, mass spectrometry imaging, tumor distribution