24 August 2020

Brighter fluorescent dyes could lead to quicker cancer diagnoses


Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have pioneered a way to make fluorescent dyes shine many times brighter, a breakthrough that paves the way for quicker and more accurate diagnostics.

Fluorescent substances


Neon greens, pinks and oranges are typically associated with highlight markers and reflective safety vests. But neon bright fluorescent substances are also used widely in hospitals and in pharmacological and biological research. For example, by binding fluorescent substances to DNA, antibodies or cell parts, it becomes possible to measure cancer cells or antibodies in patient blood samples.

The brighter a dye, the more accurately and quickly a test can be completed. However, when overly concentrated, fluorescent substances stop shining. Thus, until now, there has been a limit on the concentrations possible and consequently, the strength of light achievable. Now, researchers at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Chemistry and Indiana University have developed a solution that can multiply flourescence:

“We have developed a way to pack fluorescent dyes extremely close, into crystals and nanoparticles, without them turning off. This paves the way for much faster and more accurate medical studies. A brighter light signal allows us to measure smaller quantities of biomolecules, thus making it easier to identify a disease and support patient needs,” explains UCPH Chemistry Professor Bo Wegge Laursen.

The key to the researchers’ success was their addition of a molecule known as a cyanostar. The molecule can bind to dyes while ensuring that they don’t come in contact with one another. Consequently, very high dye concentrations can be achieved within the crystals created, without shutting off their fluorescent characteristics — which would be the case without the addition of cyanostar. Their breakthrough, called SMILES (Small-molecule ionic isolation lattices), has already been jointly patented by the University of Copenhagen and Indiana University.

The researchers are now investigating how to apply these materials across different technologies:

“We are currently exploring how these materials can color cells and bind to proteins, which is the next step in using them for, among other things, cancer diagnostics,” concludes Bo Wegge Laursen.