Heavy-Atom-Free Photosensitizers: From Molecular Design to Applications in the Photodynamic Therapy of Cancer

Van Nghia Nguyen, Yuxin Yan, Jianzhang Zhao, Juyoung Yoon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

292 Scopus citations


ConspectusPhotodynamic therapy (PDT) is a clinically approved therapeutic modality that has shown great potential for the treatment of cancers owing to its excellent spatiotemporal selectivity and inherently noninvasive nature. However, PDT has not reached its full potential, partly due to the lack of ideal photosensitizers. A common molecular design strategy for effective photosensitizers is to incorporate heavy atoms into photosensitizer structures, causing concerns about elevated dark toxicity, short triplet-state lifetimes, poor photostability, and the potentially high cost of heavy metals. To address these drawbacks, a significant advance has been devoted to developing advanced smart photosensitizers without the use of heavy atoms to better fit the clinical requirements of PDT. Over the past few years, heavy-atom-free nonporphyrinoid photosensitizers have emerged as an innovative alternative class of PSs due to their superior photophysical and photochemical properties and lower expense. Heavy-atom-free nonporphyrinoid photosensitizers have been widely explored for PDT purposes and have shown great potential for clinical oncologic applications. Although many review articles about heavy-atom-free photosensitizers based on porphyrinoid structure have been published, no specific review articles have yet focused on the heavy-atom-free nonporphyrinoid photosensitizers.In this account, the specific concept related to heavy-atom-free photosensitizers and the advantageous properties of heavy-atom-free photosensitizers for cancer theranostics will be briefly introduced. In addition, recent progress in the development of heavy-atom-free photosensitizers, ranging from molecular design approaches to recent innovative types of heavy-atom-free nonporphyrinoid photosensitizers, emphasizing our own research, will be presented. The main molecular design approaches to efficient heavy-atom-free PSs can be divided into six groups: (1) the approach based on traditional tetrapyrrole structures, (2) spin-orbit charge-transfer intersystem crossing (SOCT-ISC), (3) reducing the singlet-triplet energy gap (ΔEST), (4) the thionation of carbonyl groups of conventional fluorophores, (5) twisted π-conjugation system-induced intersystem crossing, and (6) radical-enhanced intersystem crossing. The innovative types of heavy-atom-free nonporphyrinoid photosensitizers and their applications in cancer diagnostics and therapeutics will be discussed in detail in the third section. Finally, the challenges that need to be addressed to develop optimal heavy-atom-free photosensitizers for oncologic photodynamic therapy and a perspective in this research field will be provided. We believe that this review will provide general guidance for the future design of innovative photosensitizers and spur preclinical and clinical studies for PDT-mediated cancer treatments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)207-220
Number of pages14
JournalAccounts of Chemical Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - 5 Jan 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
J.Y. thanks the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF) funded by the Korean government (MSIP) (no. 2012R1A3A2048814 for J.Y.) for financial support. J.Z. thanks the NSFC (21673031, 21761142005, and 21911530095) and the State Key Laboratory of Fine Chemicals (ZYTS201901) for financial support.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 American Chemical Society.


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