National University of Singapore researchers have developed a series of transmembrane conjugated oligoelectrolytes (COEs) with tunable optical emissions from the UV to the near IR to address the false-positive problem when detecting nanometer-sized extracellular vesicles (EVs) by flow cytometry. The amphiphilic molecular framework of COEs is defined by a linear conjugated structure and cationic charged groups at each terminal site. Consequently, COEs have excellent water solubility and the absence of nanoaggregates at concentrations up to 50 μM, and unbound COE dyes can be readily removed through ultrafiltration. These properties enable unambiguous and simple detection of COE-labeled small EVs using flow cytometry with negligible background signals. The researchers also demonstrated the time-lapsed tracking of small EV uptake into mammalian cells and the endogenous small EV labeling using COEs. Briefly, COEs provide a class of membrane-targeting dyes that behave as biomimetics of the lipid bilayer and a general and practical labeling strategy for nanosized EVs.
Schematic diagrams of small EV dye design principles
(A) Membrane intercalation of COE and carbocyanine probes. (B) Small EV labeling using COEs and the corresponding fluorescence “turn-on” mechanism. (C) Small EV labeling using lipophilic carbocyanine dyes and the “false-positive” signals due to micelle formation.