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Photosensitization by porphyrins and other tetrapyrrole chromophores is used in biology and medicine to kill cells. This light-triggered generation of singlet oxygen is used to eradicate cancer cells in a process dubbed "photodynamic therapy," or PDT. Most photosensitizers are of amphiphilic character and they partition into cellular lipid membranes. The photodamage that they inflict to the host cell is mainly localized in membrane proteins. This photosensitized damage must occur in competition with the rapid diffusion of singlet oxygen through the lipid phase and its escape into the aqueous phase. In this article we show that the extent of damage can be modulated by employing modified hemato- and protoporphyrins, which have alkyl spacers of varying lengths between the tetrapyrrole ring and the carboxylate groups that are anchored at the lipid/water interface. The chromophore part of the molecule, and the point of generation of singlet oxygen, is thus located at a deeper position in the bilayer. The photosensitization efficiency was measured with 9,10-dimethylanthracene, a fluorescent chemical target for singlet oxygen. The vertical insertion of the sensitizers was assessed by two fluorescence-quenching techniques: by iodide ions that come from the aqueous phase; and by spin-probe-labeled phospholipids, that are incorporated into the bilayer, using the parallax method. These methods also show that temperature has a small effect on the depth when the membrane is in the liquid phase. However, when the bilayer undergoes a phase transition to the solid gel phase, the porphyrins are extruded toward the water interface as the temperature is lowered. These results, together with a previous publication in this journal, represent a unique and precedental case where the vertical location of a small molecule in a membrane has an effect on its membranal activity.

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Biophysical Journal

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