The hunt for cancer can be painful and time-consuming. Once doctors find a suspicious tissue mass, they take a sample and check for malignant cells under a microscope. Now, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are developing a quicker, less invasive method.

Physicians would thread a hair-thin bundle of optical fibers into the body. By measuring the response to light sent through the fibers, scientists get a detailed cell "signature" within 30 seconds. That's because some light scatters as it hits cells, and some causes the cells temporarily to fluoresce.

In all tissues studied so far, "there was a clear distinction between malignant and healthy cells," says Irving Bigio, leader of the Laser Sciences & Applications Group. In lab tests, Bigio showed that the system can distinguish between cancerous and normal human prostate cells. Next, he plans to use the device to look for bladder cancer in actual patients.

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