Conventional fluorophore-ligand constructs for the detection of cancer cells generally produce relatively weak signals with modest contrast. The inherently low brightness accessible per biding event with the pairing of a single organic fluorophore to a single ligand as well as the contribution of unbound probes to background fluorescence are mainly responsible for these limitations. Our laboratories identified a viable structural design to improve both brightness and contrast. It is based on the integration of activatable fluorophores and targeting ligands within the same macromolecular construct. The chromophoric components are engineered to emit bright fluorescence exclusively in acidic environments. The targeting agents are designed to bind complementary receptors overexpressed on the surface of cancer cells and allow internalization of the macromolecules into acidic organelles. As a result of these properties, our macromolecular probes switch their intense emission on exclusively in the intracellular space of target cells with minimal background fluorescence from the extracellular matrix. In fact, these operating principles translate into a 170-fold enhancement in brightness, relative to equivalent but isolated chromophoric components, and a 3-fold increase in contrast, relative to model but non-activatable fluorophores. Thus, our macromolecular probes might ultimately evolve into valuable analytical tools to highlight cancer cells with optimal signal-to-noise ratios in a diversity of biomedical applications.