A three-dimensional laser optoacoustic imaging system was developed, which combines the advantages of optical spectroscopy and high resolution ultrasonic detection, to produce high contrast maps of optical absorbance in tissues. This system was tested in a nude mouse model of breast cancer and produced tissue images of tumors and vasculature. The imaging can utilize either optical properties of hemoglobin and oxyhemoglobin, which are the main endogenous tissue chromophores in the red and near-infrared spectral ranges, or exogenous contrast agent based on gold nanorods. Visualization of tissue molecules targeted by the contrast agent provides molecular information. Visulization of blood at multiple colors of light provides functional information on blood concentration and oxygen saturation. Optoacoustic imaging, using two or more laser illumination wavelengths, permits an assessment of the angiogenesis-related microvasculature, and thereby, an evaluation of the tumor stage and its metastatic potential. The optoacoustic imaging system was also used to generate molecular images of the malignancy-related receptors induced by the xenografts of BT474 mammary adenocarcinoma cells in nude mice. The development of the latter images was facilitated by the use of an optoacoustic contrast agent that utilizes gold nanorods conjugated to monoclonal antibody raised against HER2/neu antigens. These nanorods possess a very strong optical absorption peak that can be tuned in the near-infrared by changing their aspect ratio. The effective conversion of the optical energy into heat by the gold nanorods, followed by the thermal expansion of the surrounding water, makes these nanoparticles an effective optoacoustic contrast agent. Optical scattering methods and x-ray tomography may also benefit from the application of this contrast agent. Administration of the gold nanorod bioconjugates to mice resulted in an enhanced contrast of breast tumors relative the background of normal tissues in the nude mouse model. The combination of this novel contrast agent and optoacoustic imaging has the potential to become a useful imaging modality, for preclinical research in murine models of cancer and other human diseases.© (2008) COPYRIGHT SPIE--The International Society for Optical Engineering. Downloading of the abstract is permitted for personal use only.