In vivo imaging in the second near-infrared window (NIR-II, 1000–1700 nm), which enables us to look deeply into living subjects, is producing marvelous opportunities for biomedical research and clinical applications. Very recently, there has been an upsurge of interdisciplinary studies focusing on developing versatile types of inorganic/organic fluorophores that can be used for noninvasive NIR-IIa/IIb imaging (NIR-IIa, 1300–1400 nm; NIR-IIb, 1500–1700 nm) with near-zero tissue autofluorescence and deeper tissue penetration. This review provides an overview of the reports published to date on the design, properties, molecular imaging, and theranostics of inorganic/organic NIR-IIa/IIb fluorophores. First, we summarize the design concepts of the up-to-date functional NIR-IIa/IIb biomaterials, in the order of single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs), quantum dots (QDs), rare-earth-doped nanoparticles (RENPs), and organic fluorophores (OFs). Then, these novel imaging modalities and versatile biomedical applications brought by these superior fluorescent properties are reviewed. Finally, challenges and perspectives for future clinical translation, aiming at boosting the clinical application progress of NIR-IIa and NIR-IIb imaging technology are highlighted.
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