To investigate αvβ3-integrin-targeted optoacoustic imaging and MRI for monitoring a BRAF/MEK inhibitor combination therapy in a murine model of human melanoma.

Human BRAF V600E-positive melanoma xenograft (A375)-bearing Balb/c nude mice (n = 10) were imaged before (day 0) and after (day 7) a BRAF/MEK inhibitor combination therapy (encorafenib, 1.3 mg/kg/d; binimetinib, 0.6 mg/kg/d, n = 5) or placebo (n = 5), respectively. Optoacoustic imaging was performed on a preclinical system unenhanced and 5 h after i. v. injection of an αvβ3-integrin-targeted fluorescent probe. The αvβ3-integrin-specific tumor signal was derived by spectral unmixing. For morphology-based tumor response assessments, T2w MRI data sets were acquired on a clinical 3 Tesla scanner. The imaging results were validated by multiparametric immunohistochemistry (ß3 -integrin expression, CD31 -microvascular density, Ki-67 -proliferation).

The αvβ3-integrin-specific tumor signal was significantly reduced under therapy, showing a unidirectional decline in all animals (from 7.98±2.22 to 1.67±1.30; p = 0.043). No significant signal change was observed in the control group (from 6.60±6.51 to 3.67±1.93; p = 0.500). Immunohistochemistry revealed a significantly lower integrin expression (ß3: 0.20±0.02 vs. 0.39±0.05; p = 0.008) and microvascular density (CD31: 119±15 vs. 292±49; p = 0.008) in the therapy group. Tumor volumes increased with no significant intergroup difference (therapy: +107±42 mm3; control +112±44mm3, p = 0.841). In vivo blocking studies with αvβ3-integrin antagonist cilengitide confirmed the target specificity of the fluorescent probe.

αvβ3-integrin-targeted optoacoustic imaging allowed for the early non-invasive monitoring of a BRAF/MEK inhibitor combination therapy in a murine model of human melanoma, adding molecular information on tumor receptor status to morphology-based tumor response criteria.