Gene-directed enzyme prodrug therapy (GDEPT) is a promising and emerging strategy that attempts to limit the systemic toxicity inherent to cancer chemotherapy by means of tumor-targeted delivery and expression of an exogenous gene whose product converts nontoxic prodrug(s) into activated cytotoxic agent(s). The bacterial nitroreductase (NTR) enzyme, coupled with its substrate prodrug 5-(azaridin-1-yl)-2,4-dinitrobenzamide (CB1954), is a promising GDEPT strategy that has reached clinical trials. However, no strategy exists to visually monitor and quantitatively evaluate the therapeutic efficacy of NTR/CB1954 prodrug therapy in cells and imaging in living animals. As the success of any GDEPT is dependent upon the efficiency of transgene expression in vivo, we developed a safe, sensitive and reproducible noninvasive imaging method to monitor NTR transgene expression that would allow quantitative assessment of both therapeutic efficacy and diagnostic outcome of NTR/CB1954 prodrug therapy in the future. Here, we investigate the use of a novel fluorescent imaging dye CytoCy5S (a Cy5-labeled quenched substrate of NTR enzyme) on various cancer cell lines in vitro and in NTR-transfected tumor-bearing animals in vivo. CytoCy5S-labeled cells become fluorescent at 'red-shifted' wavelengths (638 nm) when reduced by cellular NTR enzyme and remains trapped within the cells for extended periods of time. The conversion and entrapment was dynamically recorded using a time-lapsed microscopy. Systemic and intratumoral delivery of CytoCy5S to NTR-expressing tumors in animals indicated steady and reproducible signals even 16 h after delivery (P<0.001). This is the first study to address visual monitoring and quantitative evaluation of NTR activity in small animals using CytoCy5S, and establishes the capability of NTR to function as an imageable reporter gene.