Photoacoustic (PA) imaging is a novel imaging modality that combines the high contrast of optical imaging and the deep tissue penetration of ultrasound. PA imaging contrast agents targeting various biological phenomena have been reported, but the development of activatable PA probes, which show a PA signal only in the presence of target molecules, remains challenging in spite of their potential usefulness for real-time PA imaging of specific biomolecules in vivo. To establish a simple design strategy for activatable PA probes, we first designed and synthesized a silicon-rhodamine based near-infrared nonfluorescent dye, wsSiNQ660 (water-soluble SiNQ660), as a scaffold and demonstrated that it offers a high conversion efficiency from light to ultrasound compared to typical near-infrared fluorescent dyes. Importantly, absorption off/on strategies previously established for rhodamine-based fluorescent probes are also applicable to this nonfluorescent dye scaffold. We validated this approach by synthesizing an activatable PA probe for hypochlorous acid (HOCl) and confirmed that it enables three-dimensional imaging of HOCl in mouse subcutis.
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