New imaging technology has been developed to help picture how tumours form.
Early diagnosis and treatment of patients with cancer could be helped by the tool which researchers at the University of Edinburgh use to detect the key cells involved.
The new type of chemical probe can also help scientists track the progress of a tumour and how immune cells can have a positive or negative influence.
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.
“This advance will be important in improving patient diagnoses.
Researchers say further development would open up the possibility of tracking tiny changes inside the body’s tissue.
The technology could also be used by doctors to monitor how patients respond to treatment.
Dr Marc Vendrell, of the university’s Centre for Inflammation Research, added: “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.”
The study – published in the journal Angewandte Chemie – was funded by the European Commission, Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.