08/21/2013 02:54 EDT | Updated 10/21/2013 05:12 EDT

Squeal of blood cancer cells put under microscope

A physicist in Toronto is testing if distinguishing the sounds of cancer cells from normal cells could help detect blood cancers earlier.

The futuristic idea is one of 37 research projects that received funding from a Canadian Cancer Society program to foster innovation.

Michael Kolios of Ryerson University is using a customized microscope that combines ultrasound and laser technology to take pictures of the high-frequency squeals emitted by different cells in the blood.

The goal is to interpret the sounds cells make to tell detect blood cancers before symptoms appear and identify cancer cells in the process of metastasizing.

Here's the theory: when a very short pulse of laser light is absorbed by a cell, the cell heats up for a short period of time and expands.

"This expansion creates a pressure wave that we detect with ultrasound, in the same way that when a rock hits a pond it creates waves that we see spreading across the pond. In this case, instead of a rock hitting the pond, we have the cell expanding and creating the wave that we then detect with an ultrasound detection device. Some people have likened this to lightning and the thunder you hear after," Kolios said in an email.

Kolios said while he's shown the feasibility of the approach, the research is still in its very early stages and there is a lot more work to do.

He hopes it will be tested in a hospital within five years. But to give a sense of the potential timeframe, he noted that it took about 15 years for ultrasound detection of cell death to move from the lab to the clinic.

The grant program is for this kind of risky but potentially rewarding research, said Dr. Sian Bevan, director of research at the cancer society.

"He is opening up new opportunities to detect blood cancers earlier and spot those cancers that have broken free from their initial site in the process of spreading," Bevan said in a release.

Other illnesses that change the shape of red blood cells, such as malaria, could also be potentially detected using the new sound approach.

Kolios' grant of $170,000 is also partly funded by the Lotte and John Hecht Memorial Foundation.

Other recipients are doing research in areas such as developing an innovative method to identify the consequences of mutations that lead to cancer, creating new, "smart" nanoparticles that can tell the difference between normal human tissue and tumours, and using objective measurements to see if differences in cells within breast cancer tissues can be linked to fitness levels.