The team at Edinburgh University developed probes that light up specific targets inside a cell, which can be traced using microscopes to see how the target is being produced in a cell.
Researchers attached fluorescent tags to molecules called peptides, which are able recognise tiny changes in the molecular make-up of tissue that could be an early warning of disease such as cancer.
Tracking these changes over time could also demonstarted how well a patient is responding to treatment.
Because the new probes are more sensitive than existing probes, researchers will be able to quantify exactly how much of the target is being produced by each cell.
Dr Marc Vendrell, a lecturer in Biomedical Imaging at the MRC Centre for Inflammation Research, said he hoped the exciting technique could help improve clinical imaging.
He said: “Peptides are a powerful tool for spotting small signs of disease but until now we did not have a good way of tracking them.
“With this new technology, we can make probes to detect diseases with more accuracy and at earlier stages.”
The study is published today in the Nature Communications journal.