Silica-Coated Quantum Dots for Optical Evaluation of Perfluorocarbon Droplet Interactions with Cells

There has been recent interest in developing new, targeted, perfluorocarbon (PFC) droplet-based contrast agents for medical imaging (e.g., magnetic resonance imaging, X-ray/computed tomography, and ultrasound imaging). However, due to the large number of potential PFCs and droplet stabilization strategies available, it is challenging to determine in advance the PFC droplet formulation that will result in the optimal in vivo behavior and imaging performance required for clinical success. We propose that the integration of fluorescent quantum dots (QDs) into new PFC droplet agents can help to rapidly screen new PFC-based candidate agents for biological compatibility early in their development. QD labels can allow the interaction of PFC droplets with single cells to be assessed at high sensitivity and resolution using optical methods in vitro, complementing the deeper depth penetration but lower resolution provided by PFC droplet imaging using in vivo medical imaging systems. In this work, we introduce a simple and robust method to miscibilize silica-coated nanoparticles into hydrophobic and lipophobic PFCs through fluorination of the silica surface via a hydrolysis-condensation reaction with 1H,1H,2H,2H-perfluorodecyltriethoxysilane. Using CdSe/ZnS core/shell QDs, we show that nanoscale, QD-labeled PFC droplets can be easily formed, with similar sizes and surface charges as unlabeled PFC droplets. The QD label can be used to determine the PFC droplet uptake into cells in vitro by fluorescence microscopy and flow cytometry, and can be used to validate the fate of PFC droplets in vivo in small animals via fluorescence microscopy of histological tissue sections. This is demonstrated in macrophage and cancer cells, and in rabbits, respectively. This work reveals the potential of using QD labels for rapid, preclinical, optical assessment of different PFC droplet formulations for their future use in patients.