A new “smart needle” has been developed by scientists to detect cancerous tissue using light.

The researchers, funded by The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)’s Invention for Innovation programme, created a technology dubbed the “smart needle”, a probe that can identify cancerous tissues or cells “almost instantly.”

The probe works by using a technique called “Raman spectroscopy”, which consists of shining a low power laser onto tissue and measuring the light reflected back. So far the probe has been tested on 68 patient samples in the laboratory, showing it can differentiate between healthy and cancerous tissue.

Made up of fibre-optics encased within a fine needle, the probe can look for cancer under the skin’s surface in areas such as the neck. Healthy tissue gives a different signature of reflected light from cancerous tissue, and research shows it is possible to detect a “fingerprint” of the disease that can be used to spot cancerous tissue in a few seconds.

The smart needle can “measure the molecular changes associated with disease in tissues and cells at the end of the needle. Provided we can reach a lump or bump of interest with the needle tip, we should be able to assess if it is healthy or not,” explained Professor Nick Stone, project lead from the University of Exeter.

The innovative new technique could help speed up cancer diagnosis and reduce the need for diagnostic surgery, particularly in lymphomas, which affect over 15,000 people every year in the UK.