Photoacoustic imaging (PAI) and thermoacoustic imaging (TAI) are two emerging biomedical imaging techniques that both utilize ultrasonic signals as an information carrier. Unique advantages of PAI and TAI are their abilities to provide high resolution functional information such as hemoglobin and blood oxygenation and tissue dielectric properties relevant to physiology and pathology. These two methods, however, may have a limited detection depth and lack of endogenous contrast. An exogenous contrast agent is often needed to effectively resolve these problems. Such agents are able to greatly enhance the imaging contrast and potentially break through the imaging depth limit. Furthermore, a receptor-targeted contrast agent could trace the molecular and cellular biological processes in tissues. Thus, photoacoustic and thermoacoustic molecular imaging can be outstanding tools for early diagnosis, precise lesion localization, and molecular typing of various diseases. The agents also could be used for therapy in conjugation with drugs or in photothermal therapy, where it functions as an enhancer for the integration of diagnosis and therapy. In this article, we present a detailed review about various exogenous contrast agents for photoacoustic and thermoacoustic molecular imaging. In addition, challenges and future directions of photoacoustic and thermoacoustic molecular imaging in the field of translational medicine are also discussed.
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