In principle, nanocarriers offer distinct advantages over traditional drug formulations, including enhanced water solubility, controlled biodistribution, and optimized pharmacokinetics. Typical nanocarriers release the drug passively, but the release in the target tissues is often incomplete and poorly controlled. Over the past few years, light-based and other stimuli-responsive drug release mechanisms have been studied because those approaches may improve drug release in the target site while minimizing off-target drug exposure.

In previous work, we have achieved this with liposomes containing gold nanoparticles in the aqueous core. Gold nanoparticles absorb near-infrared light and release the energy as heat that increases the permeability of the liposomal bilayer, thus releasing the contents of the liposome. In this work, we replaced the gold nanoparticles with the clinically approved imaging agent indocyanine green (ICG). The ICG liposomes were stable at storage conditions (4–22 °C) and at body temperature, and fast near-infrared (IR) light-triggered drug release was achieved with optimized phospholipid composition and a 1:50 ICG-to-lipid molar ratio. Encapsulated small molecular calcein and FITC-dextran (up to 20 kDa) were completely released from the liposomes after light exposure for 15 s. Location of ICG in the PEG layer of the liposomes was simulated with molecular dynamics. ICG has important benefits as a light-triggering agent in liposomes: fast content release, improved stability, improved possibility of liposomal size control, regulatory approval to use in humans, and the possibility of imaging the in vivo location of the liposomes based on the fluorescence of ICG. Near-infrared light used as a triggering mechanism has good tissue penetration and safety. Thus, ICG liposomes are an attractive option for light-controlled and efficient delivery of small and large drug molecules.

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