A Toronto-based researcher is working on a potential way of detecting cancer early, even before symptoms occur, by using a custom microscope to detect the sound of cancerous cells in the bloodstream.

Dr. Michael Kolios from Ryerson University told CTV's Canada AM that the microscope uses ultrasound technology, but with a "little bit of a twist."

By combining ultrasound and laser technology, the laser is fired on drops of a patient's blood to help produce sounds.

When the blood cells are hit with the laser light, they produce a specific high-frequency sound wave which researchers can take pictures of.

"We shine laser light onto a sample and those samples might have cancer cells or red blood cells or any other cell that's of interest," Kolios said. "And it turns out that, through a process called the photo-acoustic effect, that cell itself creates a sound."

While the sound the cell makes is not detectable by human ears, special devices can detect it, Kolios said.

From there Kolios said researchers can create specific "sound profiles" for the different cells in the blood, which in turn will help them distinguish between non-cancerous cells, cancerous cells and those cancer cells which are in the process of metastasizing.

Kolios said the research, which is being funded with the help of a $170,000 Innovation Grant from the Canadian Cancer Society, will seek to identify which cancer cells can be detected through the sound they make.

"It turns out that for some types of cells it is much easier because they absorb the light very strongly. For other types of cancer cells, it may not be as strong," he said.

According to a press release from Ryerson University, if successful, the new device could be used to detect cancer cells in the blood during a routine blood test.

"By listening to and interpreting the sounds cells make, doctors might be able to tell, before symptoms occur, whether you're a healthy or if an illness is developing.”

Kolios said that in the first stages of his research, doctors will be able to examine a "pinprick" of blood to seek any variation in sound, as well as the presence of blood cancers and metastatic cells.

The next step will be developing the technology so that the process will not require any blood, and doctors will use something similar to a "normal" ultrasound machine to examine a patient's blood for cancer cells.

Kolios said the research is in its "very early" days and couldn't give a precise timeline on when the technology might be used in hospitals.

"These are processes that take a long time, but I am particularly excited about this result," he said.

The project was one of 36 projects funded through the Innovation Grants aimed at projects that carry high risk, but have the potential for high reward.