Nerve-binding fluorophores with near-infrared (NIR; 650 to 900 nm) emission could reduce iatrogenic nerve injury rates by providing surgeons precise, real-time visualization of the peripheral nervous system. Unfortunately, current systemically administered nerve contrast agents predominantly emit at visible wavelengths and show nonspecific uptake in surrounding tissues such as adipose, muscle, and facia, thus limiting detection to surgically exposed surface-level nerves. Here, a focused NIR fluorophore library was synthesized and screened through multi-tiered optical and pharmacological assays to identify nerve-binding fluorophore candidates for clinical translation. NIR nerve probes enabled micrometer-scale nerve visualization at the greatest reported tissue depths (~2 to 3 mm), a feat unachievable with previous visibly emissive contrast agents. Laparoscopic fluorescent surgical navigation delineated deep lumbar and iliac nerves in swine, most of which were invisible in conventional white-light endoscopy. Critically, NIR oxazines generated contrast against all key surgical tissue classes (muscle, adipose, vasculature, and fascia) with nerve signal-to-background ratios ranging from ~2 (2- to 3-mm depth) to 25 (exposed nerve). Clinical translation of NIR nerve-specific agents will substantially reduce comorbidities associated with surgical nerve damage.
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