Islets can be visualized on MRI by labeling with superparamagnetic contrast agent during the transplantation procedure. However, whether the signal intensity reflects the cell number and cellular viability has not been determined. We used a self-synthesized novel superparamagnetic contrast agent –polyvinylpyrrolidone-coated superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles (PVP-SPIO) – to label β-TC-6 cells (a mouse insulinoma cell line) or primary islets with commercial Feridex as a control. The labeling efficiency of two agents was compared by Prussian blue staining, intracellular iron content determination and MR scanning. Cells were exposed to hypoxia, high-glucose or exogenous H2O2 stimulation before/after PVP-SPIO labeling. Normal and injured cells were also transplanted into renal subcapsule. A clinically used 3.0 T MR scan was performed in vitro and 24 h post-transplantation to investigate the correlation between cellular viability and signal. Our PVP-SPIO displayed superior biocompatibility and magnetic properties. All of the cells could be labeled at 100 µg/ml iron concentration after 24 h incubation. At 100 µg/ml iron concentration, 1 × 105β cells labeled with PVP-SPIO could already be visualized in vitro by MRI, less than the detection threshold of Feridex. There existed a linear correlation between the number of labeled cells and R2 value on the T2-weighted images. The signal intensity and the intracellular iron content declined along with the decreased viability of labeled cells. There was also a significant difference in signal intensity between injured and normal labeled cells after transplantation. From these results, we concluded that PVP-SPIO possessed superior cell labeling efficiency, and β cells could be labeled without compromising viability and function. The signal intensity on MRI might be a useful predictor to evaluate the number and the viability of PVP-SPIO-labeled cells. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.