We designed a strategy to monitor self-assembling supramolecular nanocarriers and their cargo simultaneously in the intracellular space with fluorescence measurements. It is based on Fӧrster resonance energy transfer (FRET) between complementary chromophores covalently integrated in the macromolecular backbone of amphiphilic polymers and/or noncovalently encapsulated in supramolecular assemblies of the amphiphilic components. Indeed, these polymers assemble into a micelles in aqueous phase to bring energy donors and acceptors in close proximity and allow energy transfer. The resulting supramolecular assemblies maintain their integrity after travelling into the intracellular space and do not lose their molecular guests in the process. Furthermore, this mechanism can also be exploited to probe the fate of complementary nanoparticles introduced within cells in consecutive incubation steps. Efficient energy transfer occurs in the intracellular space after the sequential incubation of nanocarriers incorporating donors first and then nanoparticles containing acceptors or vice versa. The two sets of nanostructured assemblies ultimately co-localize in the cell interior to bring donors and acceptors together and enable energy transfer. Thus, this protocol is particularly valuable to monitor the transport properties of supramolecular nanocarriers inside living cells and can eventually contribute to the fundamental understating of the ability of these promising vehicles to deliver contrast agents and/or drugs intracellularly in view of possible diagnostics and/or therapeutic applications.
Folic acid (FA) has been used as a molecular targeting strategy to improve the specificity of a CQD-protoporphyrin IX (CQD-PPIX) conjugate to folate receptor positive (FR+) HeLa cells for use in two-photon excited Photodynamic Therapy (TPE-PDT). FA was covalently attached to the CQD-PPIX conjugate to form a FA-CQD-PPIX conjugate. The uptake of the FA-CQD-PPIX conjugate in FR+ HeLa cells was shown to be 7 times greater than the CQD-PPIX conjugate, while both conjugates showed a similar uptake in FR negative (FR-) HT-47 cells. TPE-PDT experiments, using HeLa cells as a target, revealed a 30% improved cytotoxicity for cells treated with the FA-CQD-PPIX conjugate and TPE compared to controls treated with the CQD-PPIX conjugate and TPE. Collectively, these results suggest the presence of FA can facilitate targeting of CQD-sensitiser conjugates to FR+ cells resulting in an improved PDT effect.