Tuning the color and photostability of perylene diimides inside polymer nanoparticles: towards biodegradable substitutes of quantum dots†
Fluorescent organic nanoparticles (NPs) are attractive alternatives to quantum dots due to their potential biodegradability. However, preparation of fluorescent organic NPs is challenging due to the problem of self-quenching of the encapsulated dyes. Moreover, the photostability of organic dyes is much lower than that of quantum dots. To address both problems, we studied encapsulation into biodegradable polymer PLGA NPs of perylene diimide (PDI) derivatives, which are among the most photostable dyes reported to date. Two PDIs were tested, one bearing bulky hydrophobic groups at the imides, while the other was substituted in both imide and bay regions (Lumogen Red). Encapsulation of the former resulted in aggregation, which was accompanied by the emission color change from green to red, some decrease in the fluorescence quantum yield and a significant drop in the photostability, unexpected for PDI dyes. In contrast, Lumogen Red showed nearly no aggregation inside polymer NPs and maintained high quantum yield and photostability. According to wide-field fluorescence microscopy with a 532 nm excitation laser, our 40 nm PLGA NPs loaded with 1 wt% Lumogen Red were >10-fold brighter than quantum dots (QD-585). These NPs were stable in biological media, including serum, and entered spontaneously into HeLa cells by endocytosis showing no sign of cytotoxicity. Due to excellent photostability, these nanoparticles could be considered as biodegradable substitutes of quantum dots in bioimaging.