Among the strategies used for enhancement of tumour retention of imaging agents or anticancer drugs is the rational design of probes that undergo a tumour-specific enzymatic reaction preventing them from being pumped out of the cell. Here, the anticancer agent olsalazine (Olsa) was conjugated to the cell-penetrating peptide RVRR. Taking advantage of a biologically compatible condensation reaction, single Olsa-RVRR molecules were self-assembled into large intracellular nanoparticles by the tumour-associated enzyme furin. Both Olsa-RVRR and Olsa nanoparticles were readily detected with chemical exchange saturation transfer magnetic resonance imaging by virtue of exchangeable Olsa hydroxyl protons. In vivo studies using HCT116 and LoVo murine xenografts showed that the OlsaCEST signal and anti-tumour therapeutic effect were 6.5- and 5.2-fold increased, respectively, compared to Olsa without RVRR, with an excellent 'theranostic correlation' (R2 = 0.97) between the imaging signal and therapeutic response (normalized tumour size). This furin-targeted, magnetic resonance imaging-detectable platform has potential for imaging tumour aggressiveness, drug accumulation and therapeutic response.