It is hoped the new type of chemical probe could lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment for cancer patients.As well as examining the cells involved in the development of secondary tumours - known as metastatic tumours - the probe can also help scientists track how the tumours are progressing.
The probe works by lighting up small groups of previously unseen immune cells called metastasis-associated macrophages, which help cancer cells form metastatic tumours.
The University of Edinburgh team says this approach will aid understanding of how different types of immune cells influence tumour development, either negatively or positively.
Chemical probes, are used by a range of medical disciplines and are at the forefront in the development of new drugs.
A primary cancer is defined as where a cancer starts.
If cancer cells then break away from the primary cancer, settling and growing in another part of the body, this new cancer growth is called secondary cancer.
Further development of the tool could help detection of tiny changes inside the body’s tissues, making it easier to spot when metastases are developing, researchers say.
Doctors could use the technology in the future to monitor how patients are responding to treatment, by directly tracking metastasis-associated macrophages that are found in tumours.
Dr Marc Vendrell, of the university’s centre for inflammation research, said that he hoped the new probe would speed up the development and availability of new treatments for secondary tumours.
“This is an important advance in our abilities to study the role that immune cells play in tumours.
“We hope that this new technology will accelerate the design of better therapies to halt the development of metastasis.”
Dr Takanori Kitamura, of the university’s MRC centre for reproductive health said: “This technology allows us to see how a specific type of immune cell affects how tumours grow.
Dr Kitamura added: “This advance will be important in improving patient diagnoses”
The study, which is published in the journal Angewandte Chemie, was funded by the European Commission, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.