Gas detecting electronic pill for diagnosis of gastrointestinal ailments

Scientists from the RMIT University, Melbourne, have made an electronic pill that can detect special gases in the gut and help doctors diagnose gastrointestinal ailments such as irritable bowel syndrome.

A close up of the swallowable sensor. Photo: Peter Clarke/RMIT University
A close up of the swallowable sensor. Photo: Peter Clarke/RMIT University

The team had made these pills way back in 2015, after which it was undergoing rigorous tests until after its successful human trials, it is finally a reality. The pill is a capsule that can be swallowed. It can travel within the gut and measures the levels of the intestinal gases that are produced by the gut bacteria. The capsule travels in the gut and releases information that is transmitted to the hand-held device and mobile phones that can be interpreted by the doctors.

For the human trials, 26 participants volunteered last year. They were all tested using the capsules and it was seen that the pills they swallowed were safe and no harm was seen. Larger human trials would now be undertaken by 2019, so that the capsule is proven safe and effective and can be marketed finally. The results from this pilot human trial entitled, “The capsule and transmitter” were published this week in the journal Nature Electronics.

The capsule sensor could relay its signals to an external receiver every five minutes. The team also measured the time the pill took to cross the intestines. Over the three days of the tests the fibre content of the diet varied in the volunteers and the capsule could detect this change as well. The pill is an inch long and half an inch wide and is easy to swallow. There is a small thermometer within it along with a radio transmitter that can send signals. It contains a battery and other sensitive panels that can measure oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide in its surroundings.

According to lead researcher and co-inventor of the capsule, Prof Kourosh Kalantar Zadeh, the initial small pilot trial has revealed a world of information regarding how the bacteria work in the guts of humans. They noted that trillions of microorganisms that are actually important for good health and immunity. They noted that the stomach walls released certain oxidizing chemicals that could protect the body against foreign bacteria and other intruders. Oxygen levels in the colon rose when people took in a more fibrous diet. This was previously unknown. Researchers till date believed that colon did not contain any free oxygen. These information, said Prof Zadeh, could help scientists understand gut cancers and other diseases well. “For the first time we have a tool that actually gives information about the activities of the microbiome inside the gut,” he explained.

Dr Kyle Berean, the other co-inventor of the capsule said that this test was less invasive that any other tests that the doctors have on their hands for these diseases. It could accurately measure the gases in the intestines. As of now breath gases and stool tests were all that the doctors had to look for the gut bacterial changes that could lead to such diseases.

The next round of trials would cost up to $8m and would require at least 300 patients who have digestive problems and diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome. The capsule will cost $30 to $40 to make says Kalantar-Zadeh. The inventors hope that the pills would be available for marketing by 2020 and cost somewhere around $100 and $200. The final pricing is not yet known though.

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