Theranostics, 2019, 9 (24), 7298-7312

Thermal monitoring during photothermia: Hybrid probes for simultaneous plasmonic heating and near-infrared optical nanothermometry

Marta Quintanilla*, Isabel García, Irene de Lázaro, Rafaela García-Alvarez, Malou Henriksen-Lacey, Sandra Vranic, Kostas Kostarelos, Luis M. Liz-Marzán*

The control of temperature during photothermal therapy is key to preventing unwanted damage in surrounding tissue or post-treatment inflammatory responses. Lack of accurate thermal control is indeed one of the main limitations that hyperthermia techniques present to allow their translation into therapeutic applications. We developed a nanoprobe that allows controlled local heating, combined with in situ nanothermometry. The design of the probe follows a practical rationale that aims at simplifying experimental requirements and exploits exclusively optical wavelengths matching the first and second biological windows in the near-infrared. Methods: Hybrid nanostructures were chemically synthesized, and combine gold nanostars (photothermal agents) with CaF2:Nd3+,Y3+ nanoparticles (luminescent  nanothermometers). Both components were simultaneously excited in the near-infrared range, at 808 nm. Following the goal of simplifying the thermal monitoring technique, the luminescent signal was recorded with a portable near-infrared detector. The performance of the probes was tested in 3D spheroids from a human glioblastoma (U87MG) cell line. The location of the beads within the spheroids was determined measuring Nd3+ emission in a commercial Lightsheet microscope, modified in-house to be able to select the required near-infrared wavelengths. The temperature achieved inside the tumor spheroids was deduced from the luminescence of Nd3+, following a protocol that we developed to provide reliable thermal readings. Results: The choice of materials was shown to work as an optically excited hybrid probe. Depending on the illumination parameters, temperature can be controlled in a range between 37 ºC and 100 ºC. The near-infrared emission of nanothermometers also allows microscopic tracking of the hybrid nanostructures, confirming that the probes can reach deeper into the spheroid mass. We observed that, application of optical thermometry in biological environments requires often neglected considerations, since the optical signal changes along the optical path. Accordingly, we developed data analysis protocols that guarantee reliable thermal readings. Conclusions: The prepared hybrid probes enter 3D tumor spheroids and can be used to kill them through photothermal effects, while simultaneously measuring the local temperature in situ. We show that luminescent thermometry in biomedical applications requires the development of protocols that guarantee accurate readings. Regarding photothermal treatments, we observe a sharp thermal threshold at around 55 ºC (for 10 min treatments) that separates high survival ratio from complete cell death.