Cell-penetrating phosphorescence based probes allow real-time, high-resolution imaging of O2 concentration in respiring cells and 3D tissue models. We have developed a panel of such probes, small molecule and nanoparticle structures, which have different spectral characteristics, cell penetrating and tissue staining behavior. The probes are compatible with conventional live cell imaging platforms and can be used in different detection modalities, including ratiometric intensity and PLIM (Phosphorescence Lifetime IMaging) under one- or two-photon excitation. Analytical performance of these probes and utility of the O2 imaging method have been demonstrated with different types of samples: 2D cell cultures, multi-cellular spheroids from cancer cell lines and primary neurons, excised slices from mouse brain, colon and bladder tissue, and live animals. They are particularly useful for hypoxia research, ex-vivo studies of tissue physiology, cell metabolism, cancer, inflammation, and multiplexing with many conventional fluorophors and markers of cellular function.
Multi-modal probes allow for flexible choice of imaging equipment when performing quenched-phosphorescence O2 measurements: one- or two-photon, PLIM or intensity-based ratiometric read-outs. Spectral and temporal (e.g. FLIMPLIM) discrimination can be used to image O2 together with pH, Ca2+, mitochondrial membrane potential, cell death markers or cell/organelle specific markers. However, the main challenge of existing nanoparticle probes is their limited diffusion across thick (> 20-50 μm) 3D cell models such as tumor spheroids. Here, we present new class of polymeric nanoparticle probes having tunable size, charge, cell-penetrating ability, and reporter dyes. Being spectrally similar to the recently described MM2, PA2 and other O2 probes, they are 5-10 times brighter, demonstrate improved ratiometric response and their surface chemistry can be easily modified. With cultures of 2D and 3D cell models (fibroblasts, PC12 aggregates, HCT116 human colon cancer spheroids) we found cell-specific staining by these probes. However, the efficient staining of model of interest can be tuned by changing number of positive and negative surface groups at nanoparticle, to allow most efficient loading. We also demonstrate how real-time monitoring of oxygenation can be used to select optimal spheroid production with low variability in size and high cell viability.