The 3D images produced by the new device could lead to earlier detection of such lesions, potentially reducing the death rate from colorectal cancer, which kills about 50,000 Americans every year.

Nicholas Durr, a researcher, noted the photometric stereo endoscopy captures topographical images of the colon surface with great clarity, revealing flatter growths typically missed by traditional colonoscopy procedures.

"In conventional colonoscopy screening, you look for these characteristic large polyps that grow into the lumen of the colon, which are relatively easy to see.

"However, a lot of studies in the last few years have shown that more subtle, nonpolypoid lesions can also cause cancer," Durr added.

A consortium of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Madrid are working on this technology.

This research is funded by the Comunidad de Madrid through the Madrid-MIT M+Vision consortium.

In a new report in the Journal of Biomedical Optics, Durr and his colleagues reported the new technology could be easily incorporated into newer endoscopes used in colonoscopies, which are recommended to those aged 50.

"Photometric stereo endoscopy can potentially provide similar contrast to chromoendoscopy. And because it’s an all-optical technique, it can give the contrast at the push of a button," Durr added.

The researchers now plan to test the technology in human patients in clinical trials at MGH and the Hospital Clinico San Carlos in Madrid.

They are also working on additional computer algorithms that could help to automate the process of identifying polyps and lesions from the topographical information generated by the new system.