Cd0.3Pb0.7S (CdPbS) aqueous quantum dots (AQDs) made with 3-mercaptoproprionic acid (MPA) as a ligand have the advantages of emitting near-infrared light, well above 800 nm, that completely circumvents interference from tissue autofluorescence and have significant amounts of ligands for bioconjugation. However, retaining the right amount of MPA became a challenge when using CdPbS AQDs for bioimaging because retaining too much MPA could lead to significant nonspecific staining in cell imaging while insufficient MPA could cause AQDs instability in biological systems. Here we examined PEGylation (i.e. chemically linking amine-functionalized polyethylene glycol (PEG)) to modify MPA on the AQDs surface to improve AQDs stability and reduce nonspecific staining. In addition, for conjugation with antibodies, a bifunctional PEG with a carboxyl functionality was used to permit chemical linkage of a PEG to an antibody on the other end. It was found that performing PEGylation at the thiol concentration where the zeta potential becomes saturated stabilized the CdPbS AQDs suspension and reduced nonspecific binding to cells. Furthermore, with the bifunctional PEG, the CdPbS AQDs were conjugated with antibodies and the AQD-Ab conjugates were shown to stain cancer cells specifically against normal cells with a signal-to-noise ratio of 8.

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