(Inside Science TV) -- Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States killing 585,000 Americans every year.
Susann Brady-Kalnay, a cancer biologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio wants to change that.
"What happens now with cancer patients is they come in when they have symptoms, and it’s almost too late. The cancer has spread all over their body and caused symptoms," said Brady-Kalnay.
She wants to catch cancer before symptoms start, with a method called molecular imaging.
"Molecular imaging means that you’re making an imaging agent that actually detects a specific event," said Brady-Kalnay.
Her team has developed an imaging agent that can be injected into the body. It travels through the bloodstream, finds tumor cells and lights them up so they are visible on MRI scans.
"These probes light up those tumors in two minutes. They travel anywhere in the body," Brady-Kalnay explained.
In an animation, green areas showed the main tumor mass and the color yellow showed tumor cells that had spread. While performing a procedure, surgeons would not normally be able to see the yellow cancer cells and where they have spread.
"Now, we're able to allow the surgeon to actually see where the tumor cells are while they’re cutting," Brady-Kalnay said.
In lab models, the agents detected more than 99% of brain tumor cells. The technique could be used to detect melanoma, prostate and lung cancers sooner.
"That’s our goal here to screen people, to do lifelong screening to find things early because we've always known that the best way to treat cancer is to find it early and take it out," said Brady-Kalnay.
She hopes to begin human clinical trials with her agent in the next two to three years. She says the real key to coming up with this discovery was having a team of chemists, physicists, biomedical engineers and cancer biologists all work collaboratively.