Oct. 2, 2012 at 6:08 PM ET
A new tool for medical imaging will allow doctors to look deep into tissue — by lighting it from the inside. The nanoparticles, created by a multi-national research team, could allow vastly improved images for diagnosis of tumors and other conditions.
There are many ways of seeing inside the body: X-rays, ultrasound, MRI and so on. But it's actually very difficult to get an accurate picture of what's going on, say, between your stomach and the surface of your skin. The researchers developed a special artificial particle that essentially allows imagers to backlight such tissue, allowing for a clear picture that reflects near-visible light, not some exotic radiation.
The tiny particles are roughly in the shape of cubes, with a shell of calcium fluoride (a material found in our bones and teeth) and a crystal core of more uncommon elements that have a special optical quality. When near-infrared (NIR) light is shined on them, the crystals combine the photons and glow with a different wavelength of light in a process called NIR-upconversion.
By watching for just this second kind of light, scientists can see together an image as if the tissue they're looking at is being illuminated from behind — like when they shine a light from behind a sample in a microscope. Because cells are fairly transparent to NIR light, an extremely clear image can be obtained from as far as 3cm inside the body.
Being able to see through so many layers of skin and tissue means that subcutaneous problems like tumors and infected glands could be detected without the need for biopsies and other invasive treatment. The researchers were spread out between the U.S., China, South Korea and Sweden, and their paper, and more information on the authors and technique can be found at the State University of New York at Buffalo's press release describing the work.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.