Engineered ferritin nanocages as natural contrast agents in magnetic resonance imaging
We report the development of a self-assembling protein nanocage as a contrast agent for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The protein nanocage is derived from genetically engineered ferritin from Archaeoglobus fulgidus (AfFtnAA). Iron (Fe) was loaded in a controlled manner within the core of the ferritin nanocage, resulting in the formation of iron oxide magnetic nanostructures (MNS). Using a variety of structural and magnetic characterization methods, we have demonstrated the magnetic and domain structures of the MNS formed within the protein nanocage and their contribution on water proton relaxation in MRI. With the primary focus on cardiac imaging for identification of atherosclerotic lesion, macrophage cell line was chosen for in vitro studies. The cytocompatibility of Fe-loaded engineered ferritin nanocages ((Fe)AfFtnAA) was confirmed by cell viability and oxidative stress measurements. The ferritin nanocages were successfully internalized by macrophage cells in a dose dependent manner and visualized under MRI. The drop in relaxation time with increasing concentration validated their potential as a contrast agent in MRI. Enhanced uptake and diagnostic capability in MRI of Fe-loaded ferritin nanocages imply their use as a “natural” probe for targeting and imaging plaque macrophages.