Edible Sensors Aid In Detecting Gastrointestinal Diseases

Researchers from Heriot-Watt University, the University of Birmingham, and the University of Edinburgh, have developed an ingestible capsule dotted with very thin sensors that can detect pressure in a patient’s guts and detect points of failure. This new technology could transform the process of detecting gastrointestinal diseases and conditions, which could significantly improve their treatment.

Currently, the digestive system examinations are performed with an endoscopy where a camera attached to a tube is used to check for any visible obstructions or problems. Capsule endoscopies may also be conducted, where the patients swallow a small capsule that travels along the guts and transmits the images wirelessly back to a screen.  

The team focused on finding a method of detecting digestive problems when there is no visible problem. The new ingestible sensor can sense whether the gut is contracting, how much pressure is exerted, and exactly where it might be inactive. 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 meters of the gastrointestinal tract, identifying regions where there is no movement or when there is unexpected movement. To date, the system has been tested in a synthetic gut and animals, and a patent for the technology is pending.

“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. “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.” 

The team also focused on making the system sustainable and affordable.

Dr Cummins said: “New medical technology is only useful if healthcare providers like the NHS can afford to provide it for patients. We engineered our prototype at the Scottish Microelectronic Centre at the University of Edinburgh. It uses semiconductor manufacturing processes, like those used to make microchips at a low cost. This allows the manufacture of these sensors at scale, making them very cost-effective. We can manufacture hundreds of them at the same time.”