Going in vivo, including living cells and the whole body, is very important for gaining a better understanding of the mystery of life and requires specialized imaging techniques. The diversity, composition, and temporal–spatial variation of life activities from cells to the whole body require the analysis techniques to be fast-response, noninvasive, highly sensitive, and stable, in situ and in real-time. Functionalized nanoparticle-based fluorescence imaging techniques have the potential to meet such needs through real-time and noninvasive visualization of biological events in vivo.
Functionalized silica nanoparticles (SiNPs) doped with fluorescent dyes appear to be an ideal and flexible platform for developing fluorescence imaging techniques used in living cells and the whole body. We can select and incorporate different dyes inside the silica matrix either noncovalently or covalently. These form the functionalized hybrid SiNPs, which support multiplex labeling and ratiometric sensing in living systems. Since the silica matrix protects dyes from outside quenching and degrading factors, this enhances the photostability and biocompatibility of the SiNP-based probes. This makes them ideal for real-time and long-time tracking. One nanoparticle can encapsulate large numbers of dye molecules, which amplifies their optical signal and temporal–spatial resolution response. Integrating fluorescent dye-doped SiNPs with targeting ligands using various surface modification techniques can greatly improve selective recognition. Along with the endocytosis, functionalized SiNPs can be efficiently internalized into cells for noninvasive localization, assessment, and monitoring. These unique characteristics of functionalized SiNPs substantially support their applications in fluorescence imaging in vivo.
In this Account, we summarize our efforts to develop functionalized dye-doped SiNPs for fluorescence imaging at the cell and small animal levels. We first discuss how to design and construct various functionalized dye-doped SiNPs. Then we describe their properties and imaging applications in cell surface receptor recognition, intracellular labeling, tracking, sensing, and controlled release. Additionally, we have demonstrated the promising application of dye-doped SiNPs as contrast imaging agents for in vivo fluorescence imaging in small animals. We expect these functionalized dye-doped SiNPs to open new opportunities for biological and medical research and applications.