Apoptosis is an important process involved in diverse developmental pathways, homeostasis, and response to therapy for a variety of diseases. Thus, noninvasive methods to study regulation and to monitor cell death in cells and whole animals are desired. To specifically detect apoptosis in vivo, a novel cell-permeable activatable caspase substrate, TcapQ647, was synthesized and Km, kcat, and Ki values were biochemically characterized. Specific cleavage of TcapQ647 by effector caspases was demonstrated using a panel of purified recombinant enzyme assays. Of note, caspase 3 was shown to cleave TcapQ647 with a kcat 7-fold greater than caspase 7 and 16-fold greater than caspase 6. No evidence of TcapQ647 cleavage by initiator caspases was observed. In KB 3-1 or Jurkat cells treated with cytotoxic agents or C6-ceramide, TcapQ647 detected apoptosis in individual- and population-based fluorescent cell assays in an effector caspase inhibitor-specific manner. Further, only background fluorescence was observed in cells incubated with dTcapQ647, a noncleavable all d-amino acid control peptide. Finally, in vivo experiments demonstrated the utility of TcapQ647 to detect parasite-induced apoptosis in human colon xenograft and liver abscess mouse models. Thus, TcapQ647 represents a sensitive, effector caspase-specific far-red "smart" probe to noninvasively monitor apoptosis in vivo.
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