Engineers at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, say that a new medical imaging method they are developing may help physicians detect cancer and other diseases earlier than before, speeding treatment, and reducing the need for invasive, time-consuming biopsies. Their technique uses nanotechnology to reveal small cancerous tumors and cardiovascular lesions deep inside the body.

Rare-earth nanoparticles encapsulated in albumin shells glow under infrared light. (Credit: Prabhas Moghe)
The fluorescent imaging technique may eventually be used to determine whether a newly detected cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, which should help a surgeon deal with the full extent of disease during a single surgery, instead of waiting for the results of a lymph node biopsy, which might necessitate the need for a second surgery.

The technology uses a different type of infrared light than is currently used. Called shortwave infrared, it penetrates skin and other tissue more deeply than visible light or the near-infrared light used in current methods. This light stimulates dyes made with nanocrystals of rare earth elements, which are well tolerated, distribute quickly through the body, and accumulate at the disease sites.

The researchers can employ different types rare-earth elements, which glow under slightly different colors of shortwave infrared light, to create a family of probes that are sensitive to a variety of cancers, they explain.