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Red-Shifting Azobenzene Photoswitches for in Vivo Use.


Recently, there has been a great deal of interest in using the photoisomerization of azobenzene compounds to control specific biological targets in vivo. These azo compounds can be used as research tools or, in principle, could act as optically controlled drugs. Such "photopharmaceuticals" offer the prospect of targeted drug action and an unprecedented degree of temporal control. A key feature of azo compounds designed to photoswitch in vivo is the wavelength of light required to cause the photoisomerization. To pass through tissue such as the human hand, wavelengths in the red, far-red, or ideally near infrared region are required. This Account describes our attempts to produce such azo compounds. Introducing electron-donating or push/pull substituents at the para positions delocalizes the azobenzene chromophore and leads to long wavelength absorption but usually also lowers the thermal barrier to interconversion of the isomers. Fast thermal relaxation means it is difficult to produce a large steady state fraction of the cis isomer. Thus, specifically activating or inhibiting a biological process with the cis isomer would require an impractically bright light source. We have found that introducing substituents at all four ortho positions leads to azo compounds with a number of unusual properties that are useful for in vivo photoswitching. When the para substituents are amide groups, these tetra-ortho substituted azo compounds show unusually slow thermal relaxation rates and enhanced separation of n-π* transitions of cis and trans isomers compared to analogues without ortho substituents. When para positions are substituted with amino groups, ortho methoxy groups greatly stabilize the azonium form of the compounds, in which the azo group is protonated. Azonium ions absorb strongly in the red region of the spectrum and can reach into the near-IR. These azonium ions can exhibit robust cis-trans isomerization in aqueous solutions at neutral pH. By varying the nature of ortho substituents, together with the number and nature of meta and para substituents, long wavelength switching, stability to photobleaching, stability to hydrolysis, and stability to reduction by thiols can all be crafted into a photoswitch. Some of these newly developed photoswitches can be used in whole blood and show promise for effective use in vivo. It is hoped they can be combined with appropriate bioactive targets to realize the potential of photopharmacology.