Scientists have long struggled to diagnose and treat gastrointestinal problems due to their inability to see what’s going on inside the human body. This could all change soon thanks to a “smart pill” developed by researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.
How it works: The patient swallows a sensor about the size of a typical pill. While inside the body, the sensor measures various gases such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and oxygen. The sensor sends this data to a smartphone, where patients can view it in real time.
Co-inventors Dr. Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh and Dr. Kyle Berean say the pill could eliminate the necessity to conduct colonoscopies and other invasive procedures.
“Our ingestible sensors offer a potential diagnostic tool for many disorders of the gut from food nutrient malabsorption to colon cancer. It is good news that a less invasive procedure will now be an option for so many people in the future,” explains Kalantar-Zadeh.
Gut disorders are more common than you think. According to the NIH, up to 70 million people in the United States will develop a gastrointestinal disease during their lifetime. Up to 30% will never be diagnosed.
Kalantar-Zadeh’s sensor could significantly improve doctors’ ability to diagnose, prevent, and learn more about gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
“The sensors allow us to measure all the fluids and gases in the gut giving us a multidimensional picture of the human body,” says Kalantar-Zadeh. “Gas sensing is just the beginning.”
The team’s first human trial confirmed the pill’s ability to detect the onset of food fermentation and to measure microbiome activities inside the gut. The only way to obtain such measurements in the past was through surgery or fecal samples – but these measurements were less accurate because they could not provide data in real time.
The trial also revealed an immune response never before observed in the human body.
“We found that the stomach releases oxidizing chemicals to break down and beat foreign compounds that are staying in the stomach for longer than usual,” says Kalantar-Zadeh. In this case, the “foreign compound” was the sensor itself.
“This could represent a gastric protection system against foreign bodies. Such an immune mechanism has never been reported before.”
The trial also revealed the presence of oxygen in the colon, a part of the body scientists have long believed to be oxygen-free. The discovery, explains Kalantar-Zadeh, “could help us better understand how debilitating diseases like colon cancer occur.”
As you can see from the picture at left, the ingestible sensor is anything but appetizing. But it could be a real game changer for the millions of people who struggle with gastrointestinal disorders.
Another key takeaway from the trial was the safety aspect.
“Smart pills are harmless and there is no risk of capsule retention,” says Dr. Berean. In other words, the pill will pass naturally through the stomach and intestines before ending up in the toilet. There is no chance the pill will get “lost” or “stuck” in the stomach.
The trial, which was conducted with the help of researchers from Monash University in Melbourne, included seven participants who were instructed to follow a low- or high-fiber diet.
Based on the success of the first trial, Kalantar-Zadeh and his team hope to move forward with more trials soon and have already established a new company, called Atmo Biosciences, in anticipation of bringing the sensor to consumers.
“This will lead to Phase II human trials, and help raise the funds needed to place this safe and revolutionary gut monitoring and diagnostic device into the hands of patients and medical professionals.”