There is a need for safer and improved methods for non-invasive imaging of the gastrointestinal tract. Modalities based on X-ray radiation, magnetic resonance and ultrasound suffer from limitations with respect to safety, accessibility or lack of adequate contrast. Functional intestinal imaging of dynamic gut processes has not been practical using existing approaches. Here, we report the development of a family of nanoparticles that can withstand the harsh conditions of the stomach and intestine, avoid systemic absorption, and provide good optical contrast for photoacoustic imaging. The hydrophobicity of naphthalocyanine dyes was exploited to generate purified ∼20 nm frozen micelles, which we call nanonaps, with tunable and large near-infrared absorption values (>1,000). Unlike conventional chromophores, nanonaps exhibit non-shifting spectra at ultrahigh optical densities and, following oral administration in mice, passed safely through the gastrointestinal tract. Non-invasive, non-ionizing photoacoustic techniques were used to visualize nanonap intestinal distribution with low background and remarkable resolution, and enabled real-time intestinal functional imaging with ultrasound co-registration. Positron emission tomography following seamless nanonap radiolabelling allowed complementary whole-body imaging.
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