Scientists from the University College London have discovered that mouth and nose cells react differently to infrared light if the person they’re taken from is at a high risk of lung cancer. Their research was presented at the British Thoracic Society’s Winter Meeting, which was held in London.

The researchers hope that if the test continues to prove successful, it could improve earlier diagnoses of the disease, and boost chances for lung cancer patients to survive in the future. “This non-invasive test can help identify those who are at greatest risk within adult smokers, and may help target CT screening far more effectively,” Professor Sam Janes of the University College London, an author of the study, said according to the Daily Mail. “Our vision for the future is that smokers could get a test in the GP or pharmacy, swab their mouth or nose, and the sample is then sent off for analysis. The earlier lung cancer is detected the better the outcome.” It’s true that late diagnoses when it comes to many cancers can be severely detrimental, but only about 10 percent of late-diagnosed lung cancer patients will live up to five years after their diagnosis. But there’s about a 50 percent survival rate if people are diagnosed early enough.

Currently, lung cancer is diagnosed mostly by symptoms — such as a lingering cough, chest discomfort, shortness of breath, spitting up blood, weight loss, loss of appetite, and general fatigue — but by then it's often too late. A regular chest X-Ray is not “reliable enough to find lung tumors in their earliest stages,” according to, so the American Society of Clinical Oncologists suggests that smokers and former smokers get annual screening with low-dose computed tomography (LDCT). But if the test and swab proves efficient and accurate, detecting lung cancer might be a lot easier soon.

Previously, scientists had discovered that pure light generated by a synchrotron particle accelerator was scattered differently by the cells in someone at a higher risk of cancer — and soon they found that infrared light could reproduce this effect in the lab. In the study, the researchers examined cell samples from 76 smokers, half of whom had lung cancer. Lung cancer tumors can often cause small abnormalities to develop in all the cells in their lungs, mouth, and nose — often so subtle that it’s hard to tell unless a doctor shines an infrared light onto the cells. These abnormal cells, the researchers found, reflected the light differently than healthy cells.

“Tobacco smoke exposure seems to cause a different type of injury to cells in those that go on to develop lung cancer,” Janes said, according to the Daily Mail. “If we can use this detection system early enough maybe we can spot lung cancer at a much earlier stage or even inform whether an individual is at risk of lung cancer. Our study, using infrared light to examine such cells for the first time, revealed that the cells of smokers with lung cancer could be differentiated from those without lung cancer with an accuracy of 80 percent.”

Next, the researchers plan on taking samples from a larger population, then keeping track of participants over a longer period of time to see who develops lung cancer. “This research clarifies the need for early screening, as certain forms of lung cancer can only be surgically treated in the earliest stages,” Jane said. “More needs to be done to reach those in the community who have high risk factors, and encourage early screening to detect lung cancer as quickly as possible. The sooner we can treat, the better the chance of survival for these patients.”