Fluorescent Tool Shows Nanoparticles Biodegrade in Real Time

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A recent study using Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET) to chart the disintegration of nanoparticles in living tissue could aid the development of safe nano-drug-delivery methods.

“Nanoparticles are made with very diverse designs and properties, but all of them need to be eventually eliminated from the body after they complete their task," said Dr. Michael Chorny, a cardiology researcher with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). He noted that this is “a necessary step in translating nanoparticles into clinical use.”

He and fellow CHOP researchers used FRET as a molecular ruler to measure the distance between the components of nanoparticles in liquid and semi-liquid media, as well as in vascular cells. Labeling the formulations with fluorescent probes, the study demonstrated the radiation-free transfer of energy within the same particle.

The fluorescence gradually disappeared as the particles disassembled. The researchers monitored the change without separating the particles from their environment, which allowed undistorted and continuous measurements of their integrity.

Nanoparticle disassembly causes a shift in the fluorescence pattern. Courtesy of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

The use of biodegradable nanoparticles for medical applications has been studied extensively over the years. In some cases external magnetic fields were used to guide iron oxide-impregnated nanoparticles to metallic arterial stents. But it remained difficult to continuously monitor nanoparticles in model biological settings and living cells without disrupting cell function.

“Accurately measuring nanoparticle disassembly in real time directly in media of interest, such as the interior of a living cell or other types of complex biological milieus, is challenging,” Chorny said. “Our goal here was to develop such a noninvasive method providing unbiased results. These results will help researchers to customize nanoparticle formulations for specific therapeutic and diagnostic applications.”

Chorny said disintegration is likely to occur more rapidly early in the vessel healing process and slow down later. “This may have implications for the design of nanoparticles intended for targeted drug, gene or cell therapy of vascular disease. Nanoparticles could be formulated with contrast agents for diagnostic imaging, or could deliver anticancer drugs to a tumor.”

The work was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association, the Foerderer Fund, Erin’s Fund, the Kibel Foundation, and the William J. Rashkind Endowment of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The research is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (doi: 10.1073/pnas.1324104111). 

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Published: April 2014
förster resonance energy transfer
Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET) is a mechanism describing the transfer of energy between two closely spaced fluorescent molecules. This phenomenon is named after the German scientist Theodor Förster, who first described it in the context of dipole-dipole interactions between molecules. In FRET, two fluorophores (molecules that fluoresce, or emit light, upon excitation) are involved: a donor and an acceptor. The donor fluorophore absorbs a photon and, instead of emitting a...
An SI prefix meaning one billionth (10-9). Nano can also be used to indicate the study of atoms, molecules and other structures and particles on the nanometer scale. Nano-optics (also referred to as nanophotonics), for example, is the study of how light and light-matter interactions behave on the nanometer scale. See nanophotonics.
American Heart AssociationAmericasbiodegradeBiophotonicsfluorescentFörster resonance energy transferFRETMicroscopynanonanoparticlesNational Institutes of HealthPennsylvaniaResearch & TechnologyMichael ChornyChildren’s Hospital of PhiladelphiaCHOPFoerderer FundErin's FundWilliam J. Rashkind Endowment of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

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