Physicians currently insert camera-equipped endoscopes into patients to hunt for visible abnormalities, such as tumours, on internal organs. Now, a researcher is designing one that is capable of seeing deeper and may even help detect tumours at earlier stages.

Huikai Xie, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Florida (UF), is working on replacing the cameras with scanners that “see” beneath the surface of tissues - revealing abnormal groups of cells or growth patterns before cancerous growths are big enough to be visible.

“Right now, endoscopes just take pictures of the surface tissue. So, if you see some injury, or abnormality, on the surface, that’s good,” Xie said.

“But most of the time, particularly with cancer, the early stages of disease are not so obvious. The technology we are developing is basically to see under the surface, under the epithelial layer.”

Experiments with Xie’s scanning “micro-endoscopes” on animal tissue have been promising, although his devices are yet to be tested on people says an UF release.

The pencil-sized or smaller-sized endoscopes could one day allow physicians to detect tumours at earlier stages and remove tumours more precisely, increasing patients’ chances of survival and improving their quality of life.