Molecular Design of Bioorthogonal Probes and Imaging Reagents Derived from Photofunctional Transition Metal Complexes

Research output: Journal Publications and Reviews (RGC: 21, 22, 62)21_Publication in refereed journalpeer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)32-44
Journal / PublicationAccounts of Chemical Research
Issue number1
Online published9 Jan 2020
Publication statusPublished - 21 Jan 2020


For more than 15 years, bioorthogonal chemistry has received increasing attention due to its successful applications in the detection and imaging of biomolecules in their native biological environments. The method typically proceeds with the incorporation of a biological substrate appended with a bioorthogonal functional group (chemical reporter), followed by the introduction of the substrate to biological systems. Biomolecules containing the substrate are then recognized by an exogenously delivered bioorthogonal probe. Despite the fact that many useful chemical reporters and bioorthogonal reactions have been developed, most of the bioorthogonal probes reported thus far are fluorescent dyes. A limitation is that stringent washing is required due to the interference caused by the background fluorescence of unreacted probes. Thus, fluorogenic probes with turn-on emission properties upon bioorthogonal labeling have been designed as an alternative strategy. These probes are highly appealing because excellent images can be obtained without the need for washing steps.
Nearly all fluorogenic bioorthogonal probes designed are essentially organic dyes, their emission is limited to fluorescence, and the utilization of the probes is confined to bioimaging applications. Recently, there has been a growing interest in the bioimaging and therapeutic applications of luminescent inorganic and organometallic transition metal complexes due to their intriguing photophysical and photochemical properties, high membrane permeability, controllable cellular uptake, intracellular localization, and cytotoxicity. We anticipate that photofunctional transition metal complexes can be exploited as valuable bioorthogonal probes due to these appealing advantages.
In this Account, we introduce the molecular design, photophysical and photochemical properties, and biological applications of various bioorthogonal probes and imaging reagents based on photofunctional transition metal complexes. The presence of a cationic metal center significantly enhances the bioorthogonal reactivity of the probes, yet their stability in aqueous solutions can be maintained. Interestingly, some of these metal complexes are strategically modified to display phosphorogenic properties, that is, phosphorescence turn-on upon bioorthogonal labeling reactions. Importantly, these probes not only exhibit favorable photophysical properties after bioorthogonal labeling, but also efficient photoinduced singlet oxygen (1O2) generation. This interesting bioorthogonal reaction-triggered photosensitization capability allows the modulation of 1O2 generation efficiency and contributes to the development of controllable photocytotoxic agents. The exploration of transition metal complex-based probes not only significantly widens the scope of bioorthogonal labeling but also further highlights the unique advantages of these complexes in the design of theranostic reagents. The development of these innovative reagents is expected to contribute to the basic understanding of biological processes in living systems and provide exciting opportunities for new diagnostic and therapeutic applications.