Optical imaging for diagnostics

The evolution of optical technologies in the context of diagnostic medical imaging has revolutionized, over the past two decades, the way we understand, detect and treat disease. By using labelled tags (which can be tailored to carry a wide range of molecular motifs) and advanced technologies that enable the detection of probe emissions with high sensitivity and specificity, bench researchers and clinicians have been able to diagnose disease by detecting, for example, cancer biomarkers, cell metabolic state and atherosclerotic lesions.

Mostly owing to ease of use and wide applicability range, optical imaging technologies are currently able to provide molecular-grade information, even in operating theatres. These features align well with the drive for personalized health care, envisaged for diagnosing patient subpopulations with increased precision.

This Collection brings together recent efforts in optical diagnostic imaging, and highlights the path bringing the development of optical imaging technologies towards their eventual impact in the clinic. The curated set of research Articles, Reviews, Perspectives and Comments bridge molecular imaging, protein engineering, nanoparticle design and materials science to deliver optical-imaging applications in clinical diagnostics.

The material of which selected content is free to access until February 10th 2017  has been published within the last two years in Nature Biomedical Engineering, Nature Biotechnology, Nature Chemical Biology, Nature Communications, Nature Materials, Nature Medicine, Nature Methods, Nature Photonics, Nature ProtocolsNature Reviews Cardiology, Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology and Nature Reviews Urology.


Design of banner and header-image: Laura Marshall / Nature Research


  • Nature Methods | Article

    A bright and photostable far-red fluorescent protein, smURFP, was developed from a cyanobacterial phycobiliprotein. smURFP uniquely binds a highly cell-permeable biliverdin derivative to obtain fluorescence brightness comparable to that of eGFP in cells.

    • Erik A Rodriguez
    • , Geraldine N Tran
    • , Larry A Gross
    • , Jessica L Crisp
    • , Xiaokun Shu
    • , John Y Lin
    •  &  Roger Y Tsien
  • Nature Communications | Article | open

    D-luciferin is the standard bioluminescent substrate for in vitro and in vivo imaging. Here the authors introduce AkaLumine-HCl, a soluble luciferin analogue with a near-infrared emission maximum, which allows deep tissue imaging at lower concentrations than D-luciferin.

    • Takahiro Kuchimaru
    • , Satoshi Iwano
    • , Masahiro Kiyama
    • , Shun Mitsumata
    • , Tetsuya Kadonosono
    • , Haruki Niwa
    • , Shojiro Maki
    •  &  Shinae Kizaka-Kondoh
  • Nature Communications | Article

    As hypoxia is a hallmark of tumour microenvironment, hypoxia-sensing probes are used for tumour imaging. Here, the authors report a hypoxia probe with increased sensitivity, water solubility and functional pH range, allowing in vivo detection of early metastases as small as a few thousand cells.

    • Xianchuang Zheng
    • , Xin Wang
    • , Hui Mao
    • , Wei Wu
    • , Baorui Liu
    •  &  Xiqun Jiang
  • Nature Materials | Article

    A renally cleared, water-soluble dye emitting in the near-infrared-imaging (NIR)-II window outperforms a clinically approved NIR-I dye in the in vivo imaging of tumours and their nearby blood and lymphatic vasculatures.

    • Alexander L. Antaris
    • , Hao Chen
    • , Kai Cheng
    • , Yao Sun
    • , Guosong Hong
    • , Chunrong Qu
    • , Shuo Diao
    • , Zixin Deng
    • , Xianming Hu
    • , Bo Zhang
    • , Xiaodong Zhang
    • , Omar K. Yaghi
    • , Zita R. Alamparambil
    • , Xuechuan Hong
    • , Zhen Cheng
    •  &  Hongjie Dai
  • Nature Communications | Article | open

    The excitation–emission profiles of upconversion nanoparticles (UCNPs) make them attractive biological probes. Here the authors present a lanthanide UCNP for the in situ multiplexed detection of cancer biomarkers, with different single-colour upconversion emissions.

    • Lei Zhou
    • , Rui Wang
    • , Chi Yao
    • , Xiaomin Li
    • , Chengli Wang
    • , Xiaoyan Zhang
    • , Congjian Xu
    • , Aijun Zeng
    • , Dongyuan Zhao
    •  &  Fan Zhang
  • Nature Biomedical Engineering | Article

    A fluorescent nanoprobe that amplifies the fluorescent signal in a broad range of tumours allows for real-time tumour-acidosis-guided detection and surgery of occult, less-than-1-mm3 nodules in mice bearing head and neck or breast tumours.

    • Tian Zhao
    • , Gang Huang
    • , Yang Li
    • , Shunchun Yang
    • , Saleh Ramezani
    • , Zhiqiang Lin
    • , Yiguang Wang
    • , Xinpeng Ma
    • , Zhiqun Zeng
    • , Min Luo
    • , Esther de Boer
    • , Xian-Jin Xie
    • , Joel Thibodeaux
    • , Rolf A. Brekken
    • , Xiankai Sun
    • , Baran D. Sumer
    •  &  Jinming Gao

Reviews & Comments

  • Nature Reviews Cardiology | News & Views

    A new report has demonstrated the combined use of optical coherence tomography and molecular imaging within human coronary arteries. This combination provides a unique opportunity to look at plaque from a view not previously possible, opening the field for greater understanding of plaque biology in research and clinical practice.

    • Peter J. Psaltis
    •  &  Stephen J. Nicholls
  • Nature Biomedical Engineering | News & Views

    Nanoprobes that fluoresce only when activated by the acidic environment in tumours may make a universal imaging agent for cancer surgery.

    • Nynke S. van den Berg
    •  &  Eben L. Rosenthal
  • Nature Photonics | Commentary

    The use of photonics technology is bringing new capabilities and insights to cardiovascular medicine. Intracoronary imaging and sensing, laser ablation and optical pacing are just some of the functions being explored to help diagnose and treat conditions of the heart and arteries.

    • Gijs van Soest
    • , Evelyn Regar
    •  &  Antonius F. W. van der Steen
  • Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology | Year in Review

    Several key papers published in 2015 highlight important emerging trends in endoscopic imaging that promise to improve patient diagnosis and guidance of therapy. These studies reflect the future role for 'smart' contrast agents and fluorescence endoscopes to provide a molecular basis for disease detection, identify precancerous lesions and determine optimal choice of therapy.

    • Bishnu P. Joshi
    •  &  Thomas D. Wang
  • Nature Biomedical Engineering | Review Article

    This Review provides a broad account of the applications of light in imaging, diagnosis, therapy and surgery, and discusses the promise of emerging light-based technologies.

    • Seok Hyun Yun
    •  &  Sheldon J. J. Kwok