Structure-guided engineering of human thymidine kinase 2 as a positron emission tomography reporter gene for enhanced phosphorylation of non-natural thymidine analog reporter probe
Positron emission tomography (PET) reporter gene imaging can be used to non-invasively monitor cell-based therapies. Therapeutic cells engineered to express a PET reporter gene (PRG) specifically accumulate a PET reporter probe (PRP) and can be detected by PET imaging. Expanding the utility of this technology requires the development of new non-immunogenic PRGs. Here we describe a new PRG-PRP system that employs, as the PRG, a mutated form of human thymidine kinase 2 (TK2) and 2′-deoxy-2′-18F-5-methyl-1-β-L-arabinofuranosyluracil (L-18F-FMAU) as the PRP. We identified L-18F-FMAU as a candidate PRP and determined its biodistribution in mice and humans. Using structure-guided enzyme engineering, we generated a TK2 double mutant (TK2-N93D/L109F) that efficiently phosphorylates L-18F-FMAU. The N93D/L109F TK2 mutant has lower activity for the endogenous nucleosides thymidine and deoxycytidine than wild type TK2, and its ectopic expression in therapeutic cells is not expected to alter nucleotide metabolism. Imaging studies in mice indicate that the sensitivity of the new human TK2-N93D/L109F PRG is comparable with that of a widely used PRG based on the herpes simplex virus 1 thymidine kinase. These findings suggest that the TK2-N93D/L109F/L-18F-FMAU PRG-PRP system warrants further evaluation in preclinical and clinical applications of cell-based therapies.