Structural and process controls of AIEgens for NIR-II theranostics
Aggregation-induced emission (AIE) is a cutting-edge fluorescence technology, giving highly-efficient solid-state photoluminescence. Particularly, AIE luminogens (AIEgens) with emission in the range of second near-infrared window (NIR-II, 1000–1700 nm) have displayed salient advantages for biomedical imaging and therapy. However, the molecular design strategy and underlying mechanism for regulating the balance between fluorescence (radiative pathway) and photothermal effect (non-radiative pathway) in these narrow bandgap materials remain obscure. In this review, we outline the latest achievements in the molecular guidelines and photophysical process control for developing highly efficient NIR-II emitters or photothermal agents with aggregation-induced emission (AIE) attributes. We provide insights to optimize fluorescence efficiency by regulating multi-hierarchical structures from single molecules (flexibilization) to molecular aggregates (rigidification). We also discuss the crucial role of intramolecular motions in molecular aggregates for balancing the functions of fluorescence imaging and photothermal therapy. The superiority of the NIR-II region is demonstrated by fluorescence/photoacoustic imaging of blood vessels and the brain as well as photothermal ablation of the tumor. Finally, a summary of the challenges and perspectives of NIR-II AIEgens for in vivo theranostics is given.