SERS monitoring of local pH in encapsulated therapeutic cells†
Microencapsulation of therapeutic cells has widely advanced toward the development of treatments for various diseases, in particular seeking the protection of cell transplants from immune rejection. However, several challenges in cell therapy remain due to the lack of suitable methods to monitor in vivo microcapsule tracking, microcapsule stability and/or altered cell viability and proliferation upon transplantation. We propose in this work the incorporation of contrast agents in microcapsules, which can be easily visualized by SERS imaging. By placing SERS probes in the alginate extracellular layer, a high contrast can be obtained with negligible toxicity. Specifically, we used a pH-sensitive SERS tracking probe consisting of gold nanostars encoded with a pH-sensitive Raman-active molecule, and protected by a layer of biocompatible polymer coating, grafted on the nanoparticles via electrostatic interactions. This nanomaterial is highly sensitive within the biologically relevant pH range, 5.5–7.8. We demonstrate that this SERS-based pH sensor can provide information about cell death of microencapsulated cells, in a non-invasive manner. As a result, we expect that this approach should provide a general strategy to study biological interactions at the microcapsule level.