Parsin Haji Reza works in his lab. (Credit: University of Waterloo)

Cancer treatment could be dramatically improved by an invention designed to precisely locate the edges of tumors during surgery to remove them. The new imaging technology uses the way light from lasers interacts with cancerous and healthy tissues to distinguish between them in real-time and with no physical contact, an advancement with the potential to eliminate the need for secondary surgeries to get missed malignant tissue.

The photoacoustic technology works by sending laser light pulses into targeted tissue, which absorbs them, heats up, expands, and produces soundwaves. A second laser reads those soundwaves, which are then processed to determine if the tissue is cancerous or non-cancerous.

The system has already been used to make accurate images of even relatively thick, untreated human tissue samples for the first time ever, a key breakthrough in the development process. Next steps include imaging fresh tissue samples taken during surgeries, integrating the technology into a surgical microscope and, finally, using the system directly on patients during operations.

Researchers hope to develop a fully functioning system within about two years, a process including the need to clear ethical hurdles and securing regulatory approvals.