Luminogens characteristic of aggregation-induced emission (AIEgens) have been extensively exploited for the development of imaging-guided photodynamic therapeutic (PDT) agents. However, intramolecular rotation of donor-acceptor (D-A) type AIEgens favors non-radiative decay of photonic energy which results in unsatisfactory fluorescence quantum and singlet oxygen yields. To address this issue, we developed several molecularly engineered AIEgens with partially “locked” molecular structures enhancing both fluorescence emission and the production of triplet excitons. A triphenylphosphine group was introduced to form a D-A conjugate, improving water solubility and the capacity for mitochondrial localization of the resulting probes. Experimental and theoretical analyses suggest that the much higher quantum and singlet oxygen yield of a structurally “significantly-locked” probe (LOCK-2) than its “partially locked” (LOCK-1) and “unlocked” equivalent (LOCK-0) is a result of suppressed AIE and twisted intramolecular charge transfer. LOCK-2 was also used for the mitochondrial-targeting, fluorescence image-guided PDT of liver cancer cells.
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