Although during the last years, significant progress was made in cancer diagnosis, using either intrinsic or specially designed fluorophores, still problems exist, due to difficulties in spectral separation of highly overlapping probes or in lack of specificity. Many of the problems could be circumvented by focusing on time-resolved methods. In combination with spectral resolved detection (spectral fluorescence lifetime imaging, SLIM) highly sophisticated fluorescence lifetime imaging can be performed which might improve specificity of cell diagnosis.
To record lifetime images (τ-mapping) with spectral resolution a setup was realized consisting of a laser scanning microscope equipped with a 16 channel array for time-correlated single photon counting (TCSPC) and a spectrograph in front of the array. A Ti:Saphir laser can be used for excitation or alternatively ps diode lasers. With this system the time- and spectral-resolved fluorescence characteristics of different fluorophores were investigated in solution and in cell culture. As an example, not only the mitochondria staining dye rhodamine 123 could be easily distinguished from DAPI, which intercalates into nucleic acids, but also different binding sites of DAPI. This was proved by the appearance of different lifetime components within different spectral channels. Another example is Photofrin, a photosensitizer which is approved for bladder cancer and for palliative lung and esophageal cancer in 20 countries, including the United States, Canada and many European countries. Photofrin is a complex mixture of different monomeric and aggregated porphyrins. The phototoxic efficiency during photodynamic therapy (PDT) seems to be correlated with the relative amounts of monomers and aggregates. With SLIM different lifetimes could be attributed to various, spectrally highly overlapping compounds. In addition, a detailed analysis of the autofluorescence by SLIM could explain changes of mitochondrial metabolism during Photofrin-PDT.