Self-assembly of gold nanoparticles demonstrates a promising approach to realize enhanced photoacoustic imaging (PAI) and photothermal therapy (PTT) for accurate diagnosis and efficient cancer therapy. Herein, unique photothermal assemblies with tunable patterns of gold nanoparticles (including arcs, rings, ribbons, and vesicles) on poly(lactic-co-glycolic acid) (PLGA) spheres are constructed taking advantage of emulsion-confined and polymer-directed self-assembly strategies. The influencing factors and formation mechanism to produce the assemblies are investigated in details. Both the emulsion structure and migration behaviors of amphiphilic block copolymer tethered gold nanoparticles are found to contribute to the formation of versatile photothermal assemblies. Hyaluronic acid-modified R-PLGA-Au (RPA) exhibits outstanding photothermal performances under NIR laser irradiation, which is induced by strong plasmonic coupling between adjacent gold nanoparticles. It is interesting that secondary assembly of RPA can be triggered by NIR laser irradiation. Prolonged residence time in tumors is achieved after RPA assemblies are fused into superstructures with larger sizes, realizing real-time monitoring of the therapeutic processes via PAI with enhanced photoacoustic signals. Notably, synergistic effect resulting from PTT-enhanced chemotherapy is realized to demonstrate high antitumor performance. This work provides a facile strategy to construct flexible photothermal assemblies with favorable properties for imaging-guided synergistic therapy.

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