Optical Imaging of Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Cells in Xenograft Athymic Mice Using an ICAM-1-Targeting Small-Molecule Probe



The development of early, accurate diagnostic strategies for triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) remains a significant challenge. Intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1) overexpressed in human TNBC cells is a potential molecular target and biomarker for diagnosis. In this study, small-molecule probe (denoted as γ3-Cy5.5) constructed with a short 17-mer linear peptide (γ3) and near-infrared fluorescence (NIRF) dye cyanine 5.5 (Cy5.5) was used to detect the expression of ICAM-1 in vitro and in vivo, and to diagnose TNBC via NIRF imaging.


Western blotting and flow cytometric analysis were used for the detection of ICAM-1 expression in MDA-MB-231 and MCF-7 cells. The cytotoxicity of the small-molecule probe γ3-Cy5.5 was detected using the CCK8 assay. The in vitro targeting of the small-molecule probe γ3-Cy5.5 was verified via flow cytometry and a laser scanning confocal microscope. Finally, the targeting of small-molecule probe in vivo and ex vivo was observed by NIRF imaging.


Western blotting and flow cytometry demonstrate that ICAM-1 was highly expressed in the MDA-MB-231 TNBC cell line. Laser confocal microscopy and flow cytometry results show that TNBC cells have an increased cellular uptake of γ3-Cy5.5 compared to the control probe γ3S-Cy5.5. With in vivo NIRF, a significantly higher Cy5.5 signal appeared in the tumors of mice administered γ3-Cy5.5 than those treated with γ3S-Cy5.5. The target-to-background ratio observed on the NIRF images was significantly higher in the γ3-Cy5.5 group (10.2, 13.6) compared with the γ3S-Cy5.5 group (4.4, 4.0) at 1 and 2 h, respectively.


This is the first report of the use of ICAM-1-specific small-molecule probe for in vivo NIRF optical imaging of TNBC. This method provides a noninvasive and specific strategy for the early diagnosis of TNBC.

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This study received financial support from the National Key Basic Research Program of China (973 Program), China (2014CB744504).

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Correspondence to Wanhua Liu.

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Zhang, Y., Wang, M., Liu, W. et al. Optical Imaging of Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Cells in Xenograft Athymic Mice Using an ICAM-1-Targeting Small-Molecule Probe. Mol Imaging Biol 21, 835–841 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11307-018-01312-3

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Key words

  • Triple-negative breast cancer
  • ICAM-1
  • Near-infrared fluorescence imaging
  • Small-molecule probe