Tumor-activated in situ synthesis of single-atom catalysts for O2-independent photodynamic therapy based on water-splitting

Published in Chemistry
Tumor-activated in situ synthesis of single-atom catalysts for O2-independent photodynamic therapy based on water-splitting

Share this post

Choose a social network to share with, or copy the shortened URL to share elsewhere

This is a representation of how your post may appear on social media. The actual post will vary between social networks


Photodynamic therapy (PDT) has exhibited substantial advantages for its spatiotemporal selectivity, minimal invasiveness, and low biotoxicity in cancer therapy. Meanwhile, single-atom catalysts (SACs) have recently received enormous interest for unique electronic structures, such as well-defined and precisely situated metal centers, identical coordination environments, tailorable compositions, and versatile functionalities. However, the therapeutic efficiency of SACs is still challenged by the difficulties of efficient and controllable delivery into tumors while maintaining high catalytic activities across biological systems. Thus, an improved SACs-based strategy is required for cancer-specific PDT with maximized therapeutic efficacy and minimal side effects on normal tissues.

In situ synthesis of nanomedicines inside specific cells has been aroused for chemotherapy, overcoming random distributions of nanomedicines in healthy tissue to minimize side effects. However, in situ synthesis of SACs is still challenged by the difficulties of specific release of metals and ligands within the cancer sites. Moreover, the complex Tumor Microenvironment (TME), with variable acidic environments, hypoxic conditions, and redox species, would lead to poor stabilities and unpredictable side reactions during the in situ synthesis of SACs.

Particularly, the therapeutic efficiency of ROS-dependent PDT is significantly influenced by tumor hypoxia, limiting the generation of therapeutic ROS reagents without sufficient O2. Alternatively, Type-I PDT could relieve the dependence on intracellular O2 by generating ·OH through the Fenton-like oxidation of H2O2. However, it was still limited by the insufficient endogenous H2O2 at tumor sites. Therefore, generating adequate ROS species independent of endogenous O2 and H2O2 would considerably increase the PDT efficiency in TME.



To address the challenge of the in situ synthesis of SACs, high stability nanomedicine precursors and high photocatalytic activity synthesized SACs are required. Herein, a nanomedicine precursor of 2D/2D C3N4-MnO2 is prepared, which is lowly toxic to normal tissues. Responded to the upregulated GSH in TME, the in situ release of C3N4 and Mn2+ from C3N4-MnO2 is initiated. Subsequently, atomically dispersed Mn2+ is captured by C3N4, facilitating the in situ synthesis of C3N4-Mn SACs within TME (Figure 1).

In situ synthesized C3N4-Mn SACs can induce the generation of hydroxyl radicals (·OH) under red irradiation (660 nm). The red shift of the absorption also facilitates the red light-irradiated applications (660 nm) with greater penetration depth than that of white light in PDT. Meanwhile, the water-splitting process to generate ·OH avoid the limitations of tumor hypoxia and limited hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) in the tumor on the PDT effect.

Figure 1. Schematic diagram of the in situ synthesis of C3N4-Mn SACs for PDT.



We first focused on the in situ synthesis process and confirmed the generation and single atom structure of C3N4-Mn SACs by various characterizations. Subsequently, we found that the obtained C3N4-Mn SACs can catalyze the generation of ·OH under red irradiation, even in the absence of oxygen and H2O2. Demonstrated by mass spectrometry, we confirmed that the oxygen of ·OH comes from water and the ·OH was generated via a water splitting process. The legend-to-metal charge transfer (LMCT) process under irradiation and subsequent water splitting process was further demonstrated by a series of experiments and calculations. In brief, the LMCT process induced the generation of stable charge separated state of C3N4-Mn SACs under irradiation. Subsequently, the holes on N induced a hydrogen transfer process, further leading to the homolysis of O-H bond in water and the generation of ·OH. On the other hand, the H on C3N4-Mn SACs can reduce the intracellular pyruvate acid (the important energy molecule) to lactate acid, further enhancing the effectiveness of PDT (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The LMCT-based photocatalytic generation of ·OH by water splitting over C3N4-Mn. A photoexcited charge reparation state was formed to produce ·OH via O-H homolysis.


Furthermore, the of lipid peroxidation (LPO) process induced by ·OH generated under irradiation was monitored by mass spectrometry. As resulted, with the increase of irradiation time, lipids were oxidized to form lipid peroxides, which were further oxidized into cytotoxic small molecules (such as MDA and 4-HNE). The intermediates in the LPO process were captured and monitored by mass spectrometry within a 30 min irradiation (Figure 3). Besides, the corresponding in situ synthesis process, water splitting process, and the LPO process have been validated by in vitro experiments, which facilitates the efficient in vivo cancer therapy.

Figure 3. Examination of LPO process on LA by C3N4-Mn SACs under red-light irradiation.



We have designed a method for the in situ synthesis of SACs for tumor selective therapy. The nano medicine precursors (C3N4-MnO2) was in situ reduced by the upregulated GSH in TME, and the single atom nanomedicine (C3N4-Mn SACs) was in situ synthesis in tumor for efficient PDT, which greatly avoid the side effects on the healthy tissues.

Under red light irradiation, the photoinduced charge-separation state in C3N4-Mn SACs is constructed via a LMCT process. Through a hole-driven homolysis of O-H bond, C3N4-Mn SACs could efficiently induce the O2-independent water splitting for efficient and selective ·OH generation. This minimizes the limitations of TME hypoxia or H2O2, facilitated the efficient Type-I PDT.

Based on mass spectrometry characterizations, the intermediates were determined and monitored, facilitating detailed mechanism examinations of ·OH generation by water splitting and the subsequent LPO process. As demonstrated, ROS in PDT were generated from water splitting, which initiated the generation of toxic small molecules (MDA, 4-HNE) for cancer therapy via LPO processes.


For more detail on the experiments and results, please read our paper: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-024-46987-1

Please sign in or register for FREE

If you are a registered user on Research Communities by Springer Nature, please sign in

Subscribe to the Topic

Mass Spectrometry
Physical Sciences > Chemistry > Analytical Chemistry > Mass Spectrometry

Related Collections

With collections, you can get published faster and increase your visibility.

Applied Sciences

This collection highlights research and commentary in applied science. The range of topics is large, spanning all scientific disciplines, with the unifying factor being the goal to turn scientific knowledge into positive benefits for society.

Publishing Model: Open Access

Deadline: Ongoing