Luminescent Rhenium(I) and Iridium(III) Polypyridine Complexes as Biological Probes, Imaging Reagents, and Photocytotoxic Agents

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2985-2995
Journal / PublicationAccounts of Chemical Research
Issue number12
Online published10 Jul 2015
Publication statusPublished - 15 Dec 2015


Conspectus Although the interactions of transition metal complexes with biological molecules have been extensively studied, the use of luminescent transition metal complexes as intracellular sensors and bioimaging reagents has not been a focus of research until recently. The main advantages of luminescent transition metal complexes are their high photostability, long-lived phosphorescence that allows time-resolved detection, and large Stokes shifts that can minimize the possible self-quenching effect. Also, by the use of transition metal complexes, the degree of cellular uptake can be readily determined using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry. For more than a decade, we have been interested in the development of luminescent transition metal complexes as covalent labels and noncovalent probes for biological molecules. We argue that many transition metal polypyridine complexes display triplet charge transfer (3CT) emission that is highly sensitive to the local environment of the complexes. Hence, the biological labeling and binding interactions can be readily reflected by changes in the photophysical properties of the complexes. In this laboratory, we have modified luminescent tricarbonylrhenium(I) and bis-cyclometalated iridium(III) polypyridine complexes of general formula [Re(bpy-R1)(CO)3(py-R2)]+ and [Ir(ppy-R3)2(bpy-R4)]+, respectively, with reactive functional groups and used them to label the amine and sulfhydryl groups of biomolecules such as oligonucleotides, amino acids, peptides, and proteins. Additionally, using a range of biological substrates such as biotin, estradiol, and indole, we have designed luminescent rhenium(I) and iridium(III) polypyridine complexes as noncovalent probes for biological receptors. The interesting results generated from these studies have prompted us to investigate the possible applications of luminescent transition metal complexes in intracellular systems. Thus, in the past few years, we have developed an interest in the cytotoxic activity, cellular uptake, and bioimaging applications of these complexes. Additionally, we and other research groups have demonstrated that many transition metal complexes have facile cellular uptake and organelle-localization properties and that their cytotoxic activity can be readily controlled. For example, complexes that can target the nucleus, nucleolus, mitochondria, lysosomes, endoplasmic reticulum, and Golgi apparatus have been identified. We anticipate that this selective localization property can be utilized in the development of intracellular sensors and bioimaging reagents. Thus, we have functionalized luminescent rhenium(I) and iridium(III) polypyridine complexes with various pendants, including molecule-binding moieties, sugar molecules, bioorthogonal functional groups, and polymeric chains such as poly(ethylene glycol) and polyethylenimine, and examined their potentials as biological reagents. This Account describes our design of luminescent rhenium(I) and iridium(III) polypyridine complexes and explains how they can serve as a new generation of biological reagents for diagnostic and therapeutic applications.