A team from Rutgers University has devised a ground-breaking new method for detecting tiny cancerous tumors. Using light-emitting nanoparticles the technique can accurately identify and track early-stage tumors months before they grow large enough to be detectable by conventional imaging methods.

One of the major downsides of current cancer diagnosis technologies is that a tumor can often grow to a damaging size by the time imaging methods detect it. Catching a cancer when it metastasizes can also be tricky as doctors generally won't know the disease has spread until it's too late.

This new detection method involves injecting a subject with nanoparticles that emit short-wave infrared light. These nanoparticles travel through the bloodstream and are designed to stick to specific cancer cells. In early mouse experiments the particles accurately identified and tracked breast cancer cells as they spread to several other locations in the animal's body.

"We've always had this dream that we can track the progression of cancer in real time, and that's what we've done here," says corresponding author of the study Prabhas V. Moghe. "We've tracked the disease in its very incipient stages."

The new imaging technology excitingly promises a kind of real-time tracking of cancer cells and the researchers suggest this method can be used to detect most types of cancer.

"Cancer cells can lodge in different niches in the body, and the probe follows the spreading cells wherever they go," says corresponding author Vidya Ganapathy. "You can treat the tumors intelligently because now you know the address of the cancer."

Perhaps most inspiring is the suggestion this technology could be available in less than five years, allowing doctors an unprecedented ability to catch and track cancers more effectively than ever before.

"The Achilles' heel of surgical management for cancer is the presence of micro metastases," explains Steven K. Libutti, director of Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. "This is also a problem for proper staging or treatment planning. The nanoprobes described in this paper will go a long way to solving these problems."

The study was published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.