(Nanowerk News) An international research team has created unique photoluminescent nanoparticles that shine clearly through more than three centimeters, or more than an inch, of biological tissue, a depth that makes them a promising tool for deep-tissue optical bioimaging. The newly created nanoparticles, developed by a team led by Paras Prasad of the University of Buffalo, consist of a nanocrystalline core containing thulium, sodium, ytterbium, and fluorine, all encased inside a square, calcium-fluoride shell.
Though optical imaging is a robust and inexpensive technique commonly used in biomedical applications, current technologies lack the ability to look deep into tissue. This limitation has driven researchers to develop new approaches that provide high-resolution, high-contrast optical bioimaging that clinicians and scientists could use to identify tumors or other anomalies deep beneath the skin.
The nanoparticles created by Dr. Prasad and his collaborators are special for several reasons. First, they absorb and emit near-infrared (NIR) light, with the emitted light having a much shorter wavelength than the absorbed light. This is different from how molecules in biological tissues absorb and emit light, which means that scientists can use the particles to obtain deeper, higher-contrast imaging than traditional fluorescence-based techniques.
To emit light, the particles employ a process called near-infrared to near-infrared up-conversion, or “NIR-to-NIR.” Through this process, the particles absorb pairs of photons and combine these into single, higher-energy photons that are then emitted. One reason NIR-to-NIR is ideal for optical imaging is that the particles absorb and emit light in the near-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum, which helps reduce background interference. This region of the spectrum is known as the “window of optical transparency” for biological tissue, since the biological tissue absorbs and scatters light the least in this range.
The scientists tested the particles in experiments that included injecting and imaging them in mice, and imaging a capsule full of the particles through a slice of animal tissue (pork) more than three centimeters thick. In each case, the researchers were able to obtain vibrant, high-contrast images of the particles shining through tissue. The next step will be to explore ways of targeting the nanoparticles to cancer cells and other biological targets.