A commonly used probe for Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanning and a new probe developed by researchers at UCLA reveal different functions in diverse cells of the immune system, providing a non-invasive and much clearer picture of an immune response in action.

The probes, the commonly used FDG that measures cellular glucose metabolism, and FAC, developed at UCLA and which measures the activity of a distinct biochemical pathway, work better when used in combination than either does alone. In addition to revealing the extent and cellular composition of an immune response, the probes also may be useful in evaluating therapies that target different cellular components of the immune system, said Dr. Owen Witte, a professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and senior author of the study.

“We demonstrated with this study that each probe targets different cells in the immune system with a high degree of specificity,” said Witte, director of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center and a Jonsson Cancer Center researcher. “When cells are activated to do their job as an immune cell, the FDG probe is good at recognizing the subset of activated macrophages, while the FAC probe is good at recognizing the activated lymphocytes, as well as the macrophages. When tested sequentially, the combined information from the scans using the two probes gives you a better status of immune response.”

The study, with lead author Evan Nair-Gill, a student in the campus’ Medical Scientist Training Program, was conducted on mice bearing virally-induced sarcomas. The article appears in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. Testing the probes in humans is the next step.