Research ArticleCancer Imaging

Surface-enhanced resonance Raman scattering nanostars for high-precision cancer imaging

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Science Translational Medicine  21 Jan 2015:
Vol. 7, Issue 271, pp. 271ra7
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3010633

Seeing Nanostars

Microscopic tumors may be difficult for the naked eye to see, but they are no match for nanosized imaging agents, which home in on cancerous tissues to signal the presence of disease. Harmsen and colleagues created a new generation of cancer imaging agents, called “surface-enhanced resonance Raman scattering (SERRS) nanostars” −75-nm star-shaped gold cores wrapped in Raman reporter molecule-containing silica. When hit by a near-infrared laser, these nanostars emit a unique photonic signature (Raman “fingerprint”). The authors used a new silica encapsulation method and a reporter molecule that was “in resonance” with the laser, which meant that they shone nearly 400 times brighter than their “nonresonant” counterparts during Raman imaging. The SERRS nanostars were used to image macro- and microscopic malignant lesions in animal models of pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and sarcoma with high precision. As endoscopic and handheld Raman imaging devices are further developed for the clinic, the SERRS nanostars are sure to find a place in human tumor detection.


The inability to visualize the true extent of cancers represents a significant challenge in many areas of oncology. The margins of most cancer types are not well demarcated because the cancer diffusely infiltrates the surrounding tissues. Furthermore, cancers may be multifocal and characterized by the presence of microscopic satellite lesions. Such microscopic foci represent a major reason for persistence of cancer, local recurrences, and metastatic spread, and are usually impossible to visualize with currently available imaging technologies. An imaging method to reveal the true extent of tumors is desired clinically and surgically. We show the precise visualization of tumor margins, microscopic tumor invasion, and multifocal locoregional tumor spread using a new generation of surface-enhanced resonance Raman scattering (SERRS) nanoparticles, which are termed SERRS nanostars. The SERRS nanostars feature a star-shaped gold core, a Raman reporter resonant in the near-infrared spectrum, and a primer-free silication method. In genetically engineered mouse models of pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and sarcoma, and in one human sarcoma xenograft model, SERRS nanostars enabled accurate detection of macroscopic malignant lesions, as well as microscopic disease, without the need for a targeting moiety. Moreover, the sensitivity (1.5 fM limit of detection) of SERRS nanostars allowed imaging of premalignant lesions of pancreatic and prostatic neoplasias. High sensitivity and broad applicability, in conjunction with their inert gold-silica composition, render SERRS nanostars a promising imaging agent for more precise cancer imaging and resection.

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