Just like the organisms they inhabit, cells require sustenance to grow and thrive, and what they turn to when hungry could reveal a little about their future plans. Scientists at the University of Edinburgh have developed a new diet-tracking tool that could be used to observe changes in their eating habits, which in turn may serve as telltale signs of disease.

The new research is predicated on our understanding of the way cells consume glucose and other molecules for sustenance. As cells evolve and take on different functions, they may very well take on new eating habits to fuel their new activities. So detecting these changes could be of huge value as an early diagnostics tool, but doing so isn't easy.

"We have very few methods to measure what cells eat to produce energy, which is what we know as cell metabolism," says Dr Marc Vendrell, Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Imaging at the University of Edinburgh. "Our technology allows us to detect multiple metabolites simultaneously and in live cells, by simply using microscopes."

Vendrell and his team have developed tiny chemical probes that become illuminated when they attach to certain molecules that the cells eat, such as glucose. They put them to work in live zebrafish embryos and watched on as they lit up glucose molecules, and then did the same using human cells while they grew in the lab.

The team says that without too much trouble, the technology can be adapted to illuminate different molecules, potentially serving as warning lights for a variety of diseases, including cancer. The tool could also be used to track how patients are responding to therapies, by observing which molecules are being consumed by their healthy and sick cells.

"This is a very important advance to understand the metabolism of diseased cells and we hope it will help develop better therapies," says Vendrell.

The research was published in the journal Angewandte Chemie.