Purpose: Diabetic retinopathy is a leading cause of vision loss. There is a great need for early diagnosis prior to the occurrence of irreversible structural damages. Expression of endothelial adhesion molecules is observed before the onset of diabetic vascular damage; however, to date, these molecules cannot be visualized in vivo. Methods: To quantify the expression of endothelial surface molecules, we generated imaging probes that bind to ICAM-1. The α-ICAM-1 probes were characterized via flow cytometry under microfluidic conditions. Probes were systemically injected into normal and diabetic rats, and their adhesion in the retinal microvessels was visualized via confocal scanning laser ophthalmoscopy. Histology was performed to validate in vivo imaging results. Vascular pathologies were visualized using trypsin-digested retinal preparations. Results: The α-ICAM-1 probes showed significantly higher adhesion to retinal microvessels in diabetic rats than in normal controls (P < 0.01), whereas binding of control probes did not differ between the two groups. Western blotting results showed higher ICAM-1 expression in retinas of T1D animals than in normal controls. Retinal endothelial ICAM-1 expression was observed via molecular imaging before markers of structural damage, such as pericyte ghosts and acellular capillaries. Conclusion: Results indicate that molecular imaging can be used to detect subtle changes in the diabetic retina prior to the occurrence of irreversible pathology. Thus, ICAM-1 could serve as a diagnostic target in patients with diabetes. This study provides a proof of principle for non-invasive subclinical diagnosis in experimental diabetic retinopathy. Further development of this technology could improve management of diabetic complications.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes