Gold Nanoclusters: Imaging, Therapy, and Theranostic Roles in Biomedical Applications
For the past two decades, atomic gold nanoclusters (AuNCs, ultrasmall clusters of several to 100 gold atoms, having a total diameter of <2 nm) have emerged as promising agents in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Owing to their small size, significant quantization occurs to their conduction band, which leads to emergent photonic properties and the disappearance of the plasmonic responses observed in larger gold nanoparticles. For example, AuNCs exhibit native luminescent properties, which have been well-explored in the literature. Using proteins, peptides, or other biomolecules as structural scaffolds or capping ligands, required for the stabilization of AuNCs, improves their biocompatibility, while retaining their distinct optical properties. This paved the way for the use of AuNCs in fluorescent bioimaging, which later developed into multimodal imaging combined with computer tomography and magnetic resonance imaging as examples. The development of AuNC-based systems for diagnostic applications in cancer treatment was then made possible by employing active or passive tumor targeting strategies. Finally, the potential therapeutic applications of AuNCs are extensive, having been used as light-activated and radiotherapy agents, as well as nanocarriers for chemotherapeutic drugs, which can be bound to the capping ligand or directly to the AuNCs via different mechanisms. In this review, we present an overview of the diverse biomedical applications of AuNCs in terms of cancer imaging, therapy, and combinations thereof, as well as highlighting some additional applications relevant to biomedical research.
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