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A series of phosphorescent probes have been developed based on the iridium(iii) complexes and bio-compatible polymers for imaging hypoxia and cancer metastasis in vivo. These macromolecular or nano-sized probes exhibited near-infrared (NIR) phosphorescence emission as well as high sensitivity and specificity to hypoxia. By using non-invasive optical imaging with these phosphorescent probes, semi-quantitative measurement of tumour hypoxia and long-term observation of cancer cell proliferation in vivo have been achieved. With the tailored design for the imaging of cancer metastasis, the probes have been successfully applied for tracking various kinds of cancer metastasis in the animal models, including lung metastasis, lymph node metastasis and liver metastasis. The imaging of cancer metastasis with these probes has exhibited excellent contrast with high signal-to-noise-ratio (SNR 10 to 60) and high specificity in comparison to signals from normal tissues. These iridium(iii) complex-based phosphorescent probes provide significant advantages over the conventional hypoxia imaging contrast agents such as the nitro-imidazole derivatives in terms of high imaging sensitivity, specificity, and radiation-free quantitative measurement. The ability of these probes in tracking cancer metastasis makes them promising for such further applications as cancer diagnosis and image-guided surgery.

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