Open Access Research

Gold nanoparticles as high-resolution X-ray imaging contrast agents for the analysis of tumor-related micro-vasculature

Chia-Chi Chien12, Hsiang-Hsin Chen1, Sheng-Feng Lai1, Kang-Chao Wu3, Xiaoqing Cai1, Yeukuang Hwu124*, Cyril Petibois5, Yong Chu6 and Giorgio Margaritondo7*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Physics, Academia Sinica, Nankang, Taipei 115, Taiwan

2 Department of Engineering and System Science, National Tsing Hua University, Hsinchu 300, Taiwan

3 Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck surgery, Mackay Memorial Hospital Hsinchu Branch, Hsinchu 300, Taiwan

4 Advanced Optoelectronic Technology Center, National Cheng Kung University, Tainan 701, Taiwan

5 Université de Bordeaux, CNRS UMR 5248 - CBMN, F33405 Talence-Cedex, France

6 National Synchrotron Light Source-II, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Upton, NY, USA

7 Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland

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Journal of Nanobiotechnology 2012, 10:10  doi:10.1186/1477-3155-10-10

Published: 12 March 2012



Angiogenesis is widely investigated in conjunction with cancer development, in particular because of the possibility of early stage detection and of new therapeutic strategies. However, such studies are negatively affected by the limitations of imaging techniques in the detection of microscopic blood vessels (diameter 3-5 μm) grown under angiogenic stress. We report that synchrotron-based X-ray imaging techniques with very high spatial resolution can overcome this obstacle, provided that suitable contrast agents are used.


We tested different contrast agents based on gold nanoparticles (AuNPs) for the detection of cancer-related angiogenesis by synchrotron microradiology, microtomography and high resolution X-ray microscopy. Among them only bare-AuNPs in conjunction with heparin injection provided sufficient contrast to allow in vivo detection of small capillary species (the smallest measured lumen diameters were 3-5 μm). The detected vessel density was 3-7 times higher than with other nanoparticles. We also found that bare-AuNPs with heparin allows detecting symptoms of local extravascular nanoparticle diffusion in tumor areas where capillary leakage appeared.


Although high-Z AuNPs are natural candidates as radiology contrast agents, their success is not guaranteed, in particular when targeting very small blood vessels in tumor-related angiography. We found that AuNPs injected with heparin produced the contrast level needed to reveal--for the first time by X-ray imaging--tumor microvessels with 3-5 μm diameter as well as extravascular diffusion due to basal membrane defenestration. These results open the interesting possibility of functional imaging of the tumor microvasculature, of its development and organization, as well as of the effects of anti-angiogenic drugs.

Synchrotron; X-rays; Angiography; Angiogenesis; Contrast; Au Nanoparticles; Heparin