Recent advances in the field of non-invasive optical imaging have included the development of contrast agents that report on the activity of enzymatic targets associated with disease pathology. In particular, proteases have proven to be ideal targets for development of optical sensors for cancer. Recently developed contrast agents for protease activity include both small peptides and large polymer-based quenched fluorescent substrates as well as fluorescently labeled activity based probes (ABPs). While substrates produce a fluorescent signal as a result of processing by a protease, ABPs are retained at the site of proteolysis due to formation of a permanent covalent bond with the active site catalytic residue. Both methods have potential advantages and disadvantages yet a careful comparison of substrates and ABPs has not been performed. Here we present the results of a direct comparison of commercially available protease substrates with several recently described fluorescent ABPs in a mouse model of cancer. The results demonstrate that fluorescent ABPs show more rapid and selective uptake into tumors as well as overall brighter signals compared to substrate probes. These data suggest that the lack of signal amplification for an ABP is offset by the increased kinetics of tissue uptake and prolonged retention of the probes once bound to a protease target. Furthermore, fluorescent ABPs can be used as imaging reagents with similar or better results as the commercially available protease substrates.
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