Imaging tumors in their early stages is crucial to increase the surviving rate of cancer patients. Currently most fluorescence probes visualize the neoplasia by targeting the tumor-associated receptor over-expressed on the cancer cell membrane. However, the expression level of these receptors in vivo is hard to predict, which limits their clinical translation. Furthermore, the signal output of these receptor-targeting probes usually stays at a high level, which leads to a strong background signal in normal tissue due to non-specific binding. In contrast to receptors, characteristics of the tumor microenvironment – such as acidosis – are pervasive in almost all solid tumors and can be easily accessed. In this work, a novel biodegradable nanoprobe InNP1 that demonstrates pH-activated near-infrared (NIR) fluorescence in both human glioblastoma U87MG cancer cells in vitro and the subcutaneous U87MG tumor xenografts in vivo is developed. Bio-distribution, in vivo optical imaging, and autoradiography studies demonstrate that the pH-activated NIR fluorescence is the dominant factor responsible for the high tumor/normal tissue (T/N) ratio of InNP1 in vivo. Overall, the work provides a nanoprobe prototype to visualize the solid tumor in vivo with high sensitivity and minimal systemic toxicity by sensing the tumor acidic microenvironment.
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