Ultrasmall hybrid protein–copper sulfide nanoparticles for targeted photoacoustic imaging of orthotopic hepatocellular carcinoma with a high signal-to-noise ratio†
Although photoacoustic imaging combined with second near infrared (NIR II) molecular probes for tumor diagnosis has drawn tremendous attention during the past few decades, the targeted photoacoustic imaging of orthotopic hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) still remains a challenge due to high liver vascularization and non-specificity of probes in liver tumors. Herein, we report on cyclic arginine–glycine–aspartic acid (cRGD) peptide conjugated ultrasmall CuS nanoparticles (CuS@BSA-RGD NPs) which encapsulate bovine serum albumin (BSA) and possess high optical absorption at 1064 nm. The encapsulation of BSA results in great biocompatibility of CuS@BSA-RGD NPs along with excellent photostability and physiological stability. The cRGD conjugation enables the improvement of tumor uptake of CuS@BSA-RGD NPs by virtue of its positive tumor cell targeting capability. The efficient accumulation of CuS@BSA-RGD NPs in the tumor over time after intravenous administration to orthotopic HCC bearing mice was achieved, which resulted in highly sensitive photoacoustic visualization of the tumor region. Toxicity studies indicate that CuS@BSA-RGD NPs exhibited negligible systemic toxicity in vivo. The results demonstrate that the CuS@BSA-RGD NPs might hold great promise for future imaging and diagnosis of cancer.