Photoactivatable fluorescent probes reveal heterogeneous nanoparticle permeation through biological gels at multiple scales
Diffusion through biological gels is crucial for effective drug delivery using nanoparticles. Here, we demonstrate a new method to measure diffusivity over a large range of length scales – from tens of nanometers to tens of micrometers – using photoactivatable fluorescent nanoparticle probes. We have applied this method to investigate the length-scale dependent mobility of nanoparticles in fibrin gels and in sputum from patients with cystic fibrosis (CF). Nanoparticles composed of poly(lactic-co-glycolic acid), with polyethylene glycol coatings to resist bioadhesion, were internally labeled with caged rhodamine to make the particles photoactivatable. We activated particles within a region of sample using brief, targeted exposure to UV light, uncaging the rhodamine and causing the particles in that region to become fluorescent. We imaged the subsequent spatiotemporal evolution in fluorescence intensity and observed the collective particle diffusion over tens of minutes and tens of micrometers. We also performed complementary multiple particle tracking experiments on the same particles, extending significantly the range over which particle motion and its heterogeneity can be observed. In fibrin gels, both methods showed an immobile fraction of particles and a mobile fraction that diffused over all measured length scales. In the CF sputum, particle diffusion was spatially heterogeneous and locally anisotropic but nevertheless typically led to unbounded transport extending tens of micrometers within tens of minutes. These findings provide insight into the mesoscale architecture of these gels and its role in setting their permeability on physiologically relevant length scales, pointing toward strategies for improving nanoparticle drug delivery.