Put your finger here and hold it steady while we scan for biometric data on 100 different health conditions. Science fiction? Today it is, but it may not be for long. Not if a group of researchers at five major universities have their way.

Researchers at Rice University, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, MIT, and Cornell are working on a way to use light as a non-invasive tool to measure different substances within the body. And the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded the team a $10 million grant to develop the technology. If you’ve ever shone a flashlight through your hand, you know that the light is transmitted, but it is scattered so your skin just glows. The engineers want to “descatter” the transmitted light to create an image of the tissue between the light source and the sensor. By combining camera design, imaging sensors, and sophisticated algorithms to unravel the information contained in the scattered light paths. One example of a possible application is a device that could continuously monitor white blood cell (WBC) counts, rather than have wait to have blood samples analyzed by a lab.

This technology could result in a breakthrough as a tool to diagnose and monitor a wide range of diseases and chronic conditions. Non-invasive sensors could provide images and biometric measures, both in clinical settings and at a patient’s home. If they are low-cost devices, they could make early detection of many illnesses much more common, increasing the chances for effective treatment.