The early detection of biological warfare (BW) agents before any symptoms are present is critical for saving lives and reducing cost of therapy. Protein expression in T-cells represents one of the earliest detectable cellular signaling events to occur in response to the exposure to various toxins or BW agents. In order to fully understand a cellular response to a particular BW agent, it is often necessary to monitor the expression of specific proteins. Therefore, we have developed a novel class of surface enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) immuno-nanosensors for the real-time monitoring of protein expression within individual living cells.
In this work, we have developed and optimized novel nanosphere-based silver coated SERS nanosensors for the detection of proteins at cellular levels. SERS nanosensors were optimized in terms of nanosphere size, silver coating methods, number of silver layers, antibody binding and affinity. These nanosensors are capable of being inserted into individual cells and non-invasively positioned to the sub-cellular location of interest using optical tweezers. They were constructed from monodisperse silica nanospheres. These nanospheres were condensed from tetraalkoxysilanes in an alcoholic solution of water and ammonia. Accurate control of the silica nanospheres’ diameter was achieved by varying the reaction conditions. Nanosphere-based SERS immuno-nanosensors were then prepared by depositing multiple layers of silver on silica spheres, followed by binding of the antibody of interest to the silver. In binding the antibodies, different cross linker agents were characterized and compared. On one end, each of these cross linker agents contained sulfur or isothiocyanate groups which bound to the silver surface, while the other end contained a carboxylic or primary amine group which reacted readily with the antibodies. In order to improve sensitivity of these nanosensors, optimal silver surface coverage with crosslinkers was determined. Following binding of antibodies, evaluation of the nanosensors was performed by monitoring the SERS spectra of the nanosensors prior to and following exposure to the antigen of interest. These results showed reproducible differences in the SERS spectra upon exposure to the antigens confirming their ability to monitor trace amounts of antigen. In particular, these SERS-based nanosensors were shown successfully detect human insulin at trace levels.