Early diagnosis is crucial to the treatment of cancer. Cathepsin B (CTB) plays an important role in numerous cancers, which is a promising biomarker for early diagnosis of cancer. It is necessary to exploit new probes for visualization of CTB in vivo. Fluorescent/photoacoustic (FL/PA) imaging is a powerful tool for in vivo study which possesses both excellent sensitivity and spatial resolution. To our knowledge, there has been no FL/PA probe to image CTB in vitro or in vivo. Therefore, we developed two CTB-activated FL/PA probes HCy-Cit-Val and HCy-Gly-Leu-Phe-Gly, which could successfully monitor CTB activity in vivo. Both two probes had excellent sensitivity and selectivity in vitro. Cell imaging showed that HCy-Cit-Val or HCy-Gly-Leu-Phe-Gly could image endogenous CTB in lysosome with 6.8-fold or 5.1-fold enhancement of the FL signal and 5.8-fold or 3.4-fold enhancement of the PA signal compared to their inhibitor contrast groups. Tumor imaging in vivo further confirmed the good applicability of these two probes to monitor CTB activity with high sensitivity and spatial resolution. Moreover, the property of HCy-Cit-Val is superior to HCy-Gly-Leu-Phe-Gly due to the higher catalytic efficiency of CTB toward HCy-Cit-Val than HCy-Gly-Leu-Phe-Gly. We envision that our FL/PA probe HCy-Cit-Val will be suitable for clinical early diagnosis of CTB-related cancer in the near future.

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