An innovative nucleus-targeting zwitterionic carbon dot (CD) vehicle has been developed for anticancer drug delivery and optical monitoring. The zwitterionic functional groups of the CDs introduced by a simple one-step synthesis using β-alanine as a passivating and zwitterionic ligand allow cytoplasmic uptake and subsequent nuclear translocation of the CDs. Moreover, multicolor fluorescence improves the accuracy of the CDs as an optical code. The CD-based drug delivery system constructed by non-covalent grafting of doxorubicin, exhibits superior antitumor efficacy owing to enhanced nuclear delivery in vitro and tumor accumulation in vivo, resulting in highly effective tumor growth inhibition. Since the zwitterionic CDs are highly biocompatible and effectively translocated into the nucleus, it provides a compelling solution to a multifunctional nanoparticle for substantially enhanced nuclear uptake of drugs and optical monitoring of translocation.
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