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Ingestible sensor pills allow researchers to diagnose gut-disorders.


Most of us know the familiar feeling of an upset stomach: nausea, uncomfortable fullness, perhaps even heartburn. It can stem from over-eating at Thanksgiving dinner, indulging in one too many treats or drinking something that just doesn’t sit right. While most Canadians are able to bounce back quickly from these feelings of general malaise, those with chronic gut disorders and disease know that there is much more to overcoming the discomfort.

When it comes to diagnosing gut disorders, uncomfortable and sometimes invasive procedures are often considered the gold-standard. One issue with many procedures is the lack of real-time, live bacterial analysis. Physicians are able to get a general idea of what is going on in the gut of the patient, but because the bacteria are no longer viable and actively producing biomarkers, it is difficult to draw conclusions immediately. The result is confusion, wait times for diagnosis and frustration by the patient.

Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, are hoping to shed new light on gut disorders. They have developed a faster more accurate way to diagnose and track these disorders.

Dr. Kyle Berean is a post-doctoral research fellow and co-inventor of the “atom gas-sensing capsule.” Using an ingestible pill-like capsule, he and his team use cutting-edge biotechnology to monitor levels of various gases in the gut in real-time. The goal is to diagnose gut disorders with greater precision and shorter wait-times.

As patients ingest the pill, the tracker within the capsule sends live data to mobile phones allowing researchers to track hydrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen levels, as well as the time at which the pill is expelled.

The team receives data every five minutes for 72 hours from the capsule as the patient continues everyday life without discomfort. After it has been expelled, the results can be quickly analyzed and discussed between physician and patient.

“My professor, Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, the originator of the idea, was approached by a gastroenterologist who asked him to try to make breath tests more accurate,” said Dr. Berean.

“Currently, there are limited diagnostic devices available to gastroenterologists and one of them is the breath test. This device, while it analyzes a valuable biomarker, lacks the required sensitivity and specificity to make it a reliable tool.”

The team decided to dive into developing something that would allow for biomarker measurement directly at the point of production—the gut.

The capsule is undergoing the second round of human trials. It holds great promise for implementation in clinics and hospitals world-wide. The focus is on diagnosing irritable bowel disease and small intestine bacterial over-growth, as well as hepatic encephalopathy. Diagnosing colon cancer is the long-term goal.

“The data that we are generating isn’t just a new form of pre-existing information,” he says. “This is all previously unseen and unknown information. Therefore there are greater difficulties in the interpretation—but the act of discovery is really exciting.”

The ingestible tracker pill has huge potential as a diagnostic tool world-wide.


Sina Woerthle, MSc., is a freelance nutrition writer, health blogger and full-time research and development scientist in the vegan food industry. She enjoys the great outdoors, hiking and picnicking in the park. 



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