Pro-organic radical contrast agents ("pro-ORCAs") for real-time MRI of pro-drug activation in biological systems

Polym Chem. 2020 Aug 7;11(29):4768-4779. doi: 10.1039/d0py00558d. Epub 2020 Jun 26.


Nitroxide-based organic-radical contrast agents (ORCAs) are promising as safe, next-generation magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tools. Nevertheless, stimuli-responsive ORCAs that enable MRI monitoring of prodrug activation have not been reported; such systems could open new avenues for prodrug validation and image-guided drug delivery. Here, we introduce a novel "pro-ORCA" concept that addresses this challenge. By covalent conjugation of nitroxides and drug molecules (doxorubicin, DOX) to the same brush-arm star polymer (BASP) through chemically identical cleavable linkers, we demonstrate that pro-ORCA and prodrug activation, i.e., ORCA and DOX release, leads to significant changes in MRI contrast that correlate with cytotoxicity. This approach is shown to be general for a range of commonly used linker cleavage mechanisms (e.g., photolysis and hydrolysis) and release rates. Pro-ORCAs could find applications as research tools or clinically viable "reporter theranostics" for in vitro and in vivo MRI-correlated prodrug activation.