This work demonstrates the application of hyaluronan-conjugated nitrogen-doped carbon quantum dots (HA-nCQDs) for bioimaging of tumor cells and illustrates their potential use as carriers in targeted drug delivery. Quantum dots are challenging to deliver with specificity, which hinders their application. To facilitate targeted internalization by cancer cells, hyaluronic acid, a natural ligand of CD44 receptors, was covalently grafted on nCQDs. The HA-nCQD conjugate was synthesized by carbodiimide coupling of the amine moieties on nCQDs and the carboxylic acids on HA chains. Conjugated HA-nCQD retained sufficient fluorescence, although with 30% lower quantum efficiency than the original nCQDs. Confocal microscopy showed enhanced internalization of HA-nCQDs, facilitated by CD44 receptors. To demonstrate the specificity of HA-nCQDs toward human tumor cells, patient-derived breast cancer tissue with high-CD44 expression was implanted in adult mice. The tumors were allowed to grow up to 200-250 mm3 prior to the injection of HA-nCQDs. With either local or systemic injection, we achieved a high level of tumor specificity judged by a strong signal-to-noise ratio between the tumor and the surrounding tissue in vivo. Overall, the results show that HA-nCQDs can be used for imaging of CD44-specific tumors in preclinical models of human cancer and potentially used as carriers for targeted drug delivery into CD44-rich cells.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)277-286
Number of pages10
JournalACS Applied Materials and Interfaces
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 13 2021


  • CD44 receptors
  • bioimaging
  • breast cancer
  • cancer
  • carbon quantum dots
  • hyaluronic acid
  • tumor imaging


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