New swallowable sensors could help diagnose gut movement problems: Study

Researchers have developed swallowable sensors that could transform the process of detecting gastrointestinal diseases and conditions

It’s well-known that a healthy gut is crucial for maintaining optimal health. However, diagnosis and treatment of gastrointestinal issues can be challenging. To address this, researchers have developed swallowable sensors that could transform the process of detecting gastrointestinal diseases and conditions.

The new study, conducted by researchers from Heriot-Watt University the University of Birmingham and the University of Edinburgh, sheds light on an ingestible capsule dotted with very thin sensors that can detect pressure in a patient’s guts and detect points of failure.

It does more than take images of inside the guts, the ingestible system will sense whether the gut is contracting, how much pressure is exerted and exactly where it might be inactive, a press statement explained. The findings were published in the journal Cell Press.

They focused on finding a way to detect problems when there isn’t a visible problem. They wanted to better understand the issue when the digestive tract isn’t working when it’s not contracting and relaxing as it should when pushing waste along, they explained in the statement.

The swallowable capsule is 3 cm long and 1 cm in diameter. The pressure sensors on the capsule measure movement and activity along the eight or nine metres of the gastrointestinal tract, the statement added. It can identify regions where there is no movement or when there is unexpected movement.

“The device is extremely resilient due to the number of sensors and their flexibility: it will continue to work even if it’s damaged,” study author Gerald Cummins said in the statement. “We’ve also ensured that it won’t scratch or damage the gut in any way by making the sensors very thin and covering them with a low-friction coating,” Cummins added.

Currently, the popular way to look at the intestines or the gut is to do an endoscopy wherein a camera attached to a tube is used to check for any visible obstructions or problems. In some places, capsule endoscopies are also conducted. In this, the patients swallow a little capsule that travels along the guts and transmits the images wirelessly back to a screen.  

Previous studies have also looked into improving the diagnosis of gut problems. For instance, a 2023 study, published in the journal Nature, brought to focus a blueberry-sized pill that could detect signs of gastrointestinal trouble, and send warning signals to an ordinary smartphone.

Using advanced technology to identify gastrointestinal problems could significantly improve their diagnosis and in turn, treatment.

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