A variety of proteases are overexpressed or activated during pathogenesis and represent important targets for therapeutic drugs. We have previously shown that optical imaging probes sensitive in the near-infrared fluorescence (NIRF) spectrum can be used for in vivo imaging of enzyme activity. In the current study, we show that these probes can be designed with specificity for specific enzymes, for example, cathepsin D which is known to be overexpressed in many tumors. A NIR cyanine fluorochrome served as the optical reporter and was attached to the amino terminal of an 11 amino acid peptide sequence with specificity for cathepsin D. The peptides were subsequently attached to a synthetic graft copolymer for efficient tumoral delivery. The close spatial proximity of the multiple fluorochromes resulted in quenching of fluorescence in the bound state. A 350-fold signal amplification was observed post cleavage during in vitro testing. Cell culture experiments using a rodent tumor cell line stably transfected with human cathepsin D confirmed enzyme specific activation within cells. This sequence but not a scrambled control sequence showed enzyme specificity in vitro. We conclude that activatable NIRF optical probes can be synthesized to potentially probe for specific enzymes in living organisms.