Such tumors make cancer aggressive and difficult to treat.
The new material is based on poly(lactic acid), a biorenewable, biodegradable polymer that is safe for the body and the environment, and is easy and inexpensive to fabricate in many forms, including films, fibers and nanoparticles.
It is being useful for medical research as well as environmental research, sustainable design and green products.
The research team along with cancer researchers at Duke University Medical Centre synthesized the new material by combining a corn-based biopolymer with a dye that is both fluorescent and phosphorescent.
The phosphorescence appears as a long-lived afterglow that is only evident under low oxygen or oxygen-free conditions.
"We were amazed at how easy the material was to synthesize and fabricate as films and nanoparticles, and how useful it is for measuring low oxygen concentrations," Nature quoted Cassandra Fraser, a U.Va. chemistry professor as saying.
"It is based on a bio-friendly material," said Guoqing Zhang, a U.Va. chemistry doctoral candidate.
"It is safe for the body and the environment, and so we realized it could have applications not just for medical research and developing improved disease treatments, but also for new sustainable technologies," Zhang added.
Zhang devised a method to adjust the relative intensities of short-lived blue fluorescence and long-lived yellow phosphorescence, ultimately creating a calibrated colourful glow that allows visualization of even minute levels of oxygen.
The biomaterial displays its oxygen-sensitive phosphorescence at room or body temperature, making it ideal for use in tissues.
"We have found that these nanoparticles were directly applicable to our existing tumor models," said Greg Palmer, assistant professor of radiation oncology at Duke University Medical Center.
"This technology will enable us to better characterize the influence of tumor hypoxia on tumor growth and treatment response," he added.
The study appears in journal Nature Materials.