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A fluorophore's electron-deficiency does matter in designing high-performance near-infrared fluorescent probes

"Chem. Sci., 2020,11, 11205-11213"

The applications of most fluorescent probes available for Glutathione S-Transferases (GSTs), including NI3 which we developed recently based on 1,8-naphthalimide (NI), are limited by their short emission wavelengths due to insufficient penetration. To realize imaging at a deeper depth, near-infrared (NIR) fluorescent probes are required. Here we report for the first time the designing of NIR fluorescent probes for GSTs by employing the NIR fluorophore HCy which possesses a higher brightness, hydrophilicity and electron-deficiency relative to NI. Intriguingly, with the same receptor unit, the HCy-based probe is always more reactive towards glutathione than the NI-based one, regardless of the specific chemical structure of the receptor unit. This was proved to result from the higher electron-deficiency of HCy instead of its higher hydrophilicity based on a comprehensive analysis. Further, with caging of the autofluorescence being crucial and more difficult to achieve via photoinduced electron transfer (PET) for a NIR probe, the quenching mechanism of HCy-based probes was proved to be PET for the first time with femtosecond transient absorption and theoretical calculations. Thus, HCy2 and HCy9, which employ receptor units less reactive than the one adopted in NI3, turned out to be the most appropriate NIR probes with high-sensitivity and little nonenzymatic background noise. They were then successfully applied to detecting GST in cells, tissues and tumor xenografts in vivo. Additionally, unlike HCy2 with a broad isoenzyme selectivity, HCy9 is specific for GSTA1-1, which is attributed to its lower reactivity and the higher effectiveness of GSTA1-1 in stabilizing the active intermediate via H-bonds based on docking simulations.

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