[Nature Communications] A genetic engineering strategy for editing near-infrared-II fluorophores
The second near-infrared (NIR-II) window is a fundamental modality for deep-tissue in vivo imaging. However, it is challenging to synthesize NIR-II probes with high quantum yields (QYs), good biocompatibility, satisfactory pharmacokinetics, and tunable biological properties. Conventional long-wavelength probes, such as inorganic probes (which often contain heavy metal atoms in their scaffolds) and organic dyes (which contain large π-conjugated groups), exhibit poor biosafety, low QYs, and/or uncontrollable pharmacokinetic properties. Herein, we present a bioengineering strategy that can replace the conventional chemical synthesis methods for generating NIR-II contrast agents. We use a genetic engineering technique to obtain a series of albumin fragments and recombinant proteins containing one or multiple domains that form covalent bonds with chloro-containing cyanine dyes. These albumin variants protect the inserted dyes and remarkably enhance their brightness. The albumin variants can also be genetically edited to develop size-tunable complexes with precisely tailored pharmacokinetics. The proteins can also be conjugated to biofunctional molecules without impacting the complexed dyes. This combination of albumin mutants and clinically-used cyanine dyes can help widen the clinical application prospects of NIR-II fluorophores.