Pill-size sensor sniffs out gases as it passes through your gut

Jan. 9, 2018

A swallowable, pill-size sensor that can sense gases as it travels through the human digestive tract may one day help doctors diagnose patients’ gut conditions, such as lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome, a new, small study finds.

Researchers tested the electronic sensor in seven healthy people and found that the device could accurately detect the concentrations of hydrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen in real time as it passed through the body, according to the study, published online Jan. 8 in the journal Nature Electronics.

Although the sensor’s results still need to be tested in a larger group of people, including in individuals who have gut conditions, use of the sensor could one day lead to fewer invasive procedures, such as colonoscopies, the researchers said.

The capsule is about the size of a large pill—just 1 inch by 0.4 inches (2.6 centimeters by 1 centimeters). From the moment it’s swallowed to the time it’s excreted between one and two days later, the capsule sends data about the gut’s gas concentrations every 5 minutes to a handheld device outside of the body. This device, in turn, uses Bluetooth to send the data to a smartphone application.

Beyond relaying real-time data about gas concentrations throughout a person’s gut, the capsule trial revealed that the human stomach has a previously unknown protection system. This system kicks into gear if foreign compounds stay in the stomach for too long, triggering the stomach to release oxidizing chemicals to break down and destroy them, the researchers found.

This oxygen-related finding may help researchers understand how certain conditions, such as colon cancer, develop, lead study author Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, a professor in the School of Engineering at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, in Australia said.

If it’s approved, the capsule could revolutionize the way doctors diagnose gut disorders, and even help them assess a patient’s diet, he said. That’s because each disease likely has its own signature of gas concentrations, so capsule readouts would allow doctors to identify any problems a patient is having, he said.

A larger trial with more than 300 patients is expected to be completed in 2019, Kalantar-zadeh noted. It’s unclear how much the capsule will cost if it’s brought to market, but the researchers “hope to deliver it to patients under $200 in the first stage,” he said.

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