The development of multifunctional agents for simultaneous tumor targeting and near infrared (NIR) fluorescence imaging is expected to have significant impact on future personalized oncology owing to the very low tissue autofluorescence and high tissue penetration depth in the NIR spectrum window. Cancer NIR molecular imaging relies greatly on the development of stable, highly specific and sensitive molecular probes. Organic dyes have shown promising clinical implications as non-targeting agents for optical imaging in which indocyanine green has long been implemented in clinical use. Recently, significant progress has been made on the development of unique NIR dyes with tumor targeting properties. Current ongoing design strategies have overcome some of the limitations of conventional NIR organic dyes, such as poor hydrophilicity and photostability, low quantum yield, insufficient stability in biological system, low detection sensitivity, etc. This potential is further realized with the use of these NIR dyes or NIR dye-encapsulated nanoparticles by conjugation with tumor specific ligands (such as small molecules, peptides, proteins and antibodies) for tumor targeted imaging. Very recently, natively multifunctional NIR dyes that can preferentially accumulate in tumor cells without the need of chemical conjugation to tumor targeting ligands have been developed and these dyes have shown unique optical and pharmaceutical properties for biomedical imaging with superior signal-to-background contrast index. The main focus of this article is to provide a concise overview of newly developed NIR dyes and their potential applications in cancer targeting and imaging. The development of future multifunctional agents by combining targeting, imaging and even therapeutic routes will also be discussed. We believe these newly developed multifunctional NIR dyes will broaden current concept of tumor targeted imaging and hold promise to make an important contribution to the diagnosis and therapeutics for the treatment of cancer.
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