Contrast-enhanced PET/MR imaging versus contrast-enhanced PET/CT in head and neck cancer: how much MR information is needed?

Felix P Kuhn, Martin Hüllner, Caecilia E Mader, Nikos Kastrinidis, Gerhard F Huber, Gustav K von Schulthess, Spyros Kollias, Patrick Veit-Haibach
Journal of Nuclear Medicine: Official Publication, Society of Nuclear Medicine 2014, 55 (4): 551-8

UNLABELLED: Considering PET/MR imaging as a whole-body staging tool, scan time restrictions in a single body area are mandatory for the cost-effective clinical operation of an integrated multimodality scanner setting. It has to be considered that (18)F-FDG already acts as a contrast agent and that under certain circumstances MR contrast may not yield additional clinically relevant information. The concept of the present study was to understand which portions of the imaging information enhance the sensitivity and specificity of the hybrid examination and which portions are redundant.

METHODS: One hundred fifty consecutive patients referred for primary staging or restaging of head and neck cancer underwent sequential whole-body (18)F-FDG PET with CT-based attenuation correction, contrast-enhanced (ce) CT, and conventional diagnostic MR imaging of the head and neck in a trimodality PET/CT-MR system. Assessed were image quality, lesion conspicuity, diagnostic confidence, and the benefit of additional coronal and sagittal imaging planes in cePET/CT, PET/MR imaging with only T2-weighted fat-suppressed images (T2w PET/MR imaging), and cePET/MR imaging.

RESULTS: In 85 patients with at least 1 PET-positive lesion, 162 lesions were evaluated. Similar robustness was found for CT and MR image quality. T2w PET/MR imaging performed similarly to (metastatic lymph nodes) or better than (primary tumors) cePET/CT in the morphologic characterization of PET-positive lesions and permitted the diagnosis of necrotic or cystic lymph node metastasis without application of intravenous contrast medium. CePET/MR imaging yielded a higher diagnostic confidence for accurate lesion conspicuity (especially in the nasopharynx and in the larynx), infiltration of adjacent structures, and perineural spread.

CONCLUSION: The results of the present study provide evidence that PET/MR imaging can serve as a legitimate alternative to PET/CT in the clinical workup of patients with head and neck cancers. Intravenous MR contrast medium may be applied only if the exact tumor extent or infiltration of crucial structures is of concern (i.e., preoperatively) or if perineural spread is anticipated. In early assessment of the response to therapy, in follow-up examinations, or in a whole-body protocol for non-head and neck tumors, T2w PET/MR imaging may be sufficient for coverage of the head and neck. The additional MR scanning time may instead be used for advanced MR techniques to increase the specificity of the hybrid imaging examination.

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