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GPS-Like Smart Pills with AI Provide Real-Time 3D Monitoring Of Gastrointestinal Health

By HospiMedica International staff writers
Posted on 13 Jun 2024
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Image: An ingestible smart sensor could detect cancers (Photo courtesy of The Khan lab)
Image: An ingestible smart sensor could detect cancers (Photo courtesy of The Khan lab)

Gas produced in the intestines when bacteria digest food can provide valuable information about a person's health. Currently, to measure gastrointestinal (GI) tract gases, physicians use methods such as flatus collection and intestinal tube collection, or indirect methods like breath testing and stool analysis. Ingestible capsules, which are swallowed by the patient, offer a promising alternative, although no technologies have yet been perfected for precise gas sensing in this format. Now, recent advancements in wearable electronics and artificial intelligence (AI) have led to the creation of ingestible sensors that not only detect stomach gases but also track their location in real time.

Researchers at the University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA, USA) have designed "smart" pills equipped with sensors that, once ingested, can detect gases linked to conditions like gastritis and gastric cancer. These smart pills can also be accurately tracked through a newly developed wearable system. This innovation marks a significant advancement in ingestible technology, potentially acting as a 'Fitbit for the gut' and aiding early disease detection. Although wearable sensors show great promise in monitoring bodily functions, tracking ingestible devices within the body has been challenging. However, with new advancements in materials and electronics miniaturization, as well as innovative protocols developed by the USC team, the researchers have successfully demonstrated the capability to specifically track device locations within the GI tract.

The first innovation involves a wearable coil embedded in a t-shirt that creates a magnetic field. This field, when combined with a neural network that has been trained, enables the precise location of the capsule within the body. According to the researchers, this capability using a wearable device has not been demonstrated before. The second innovation involves the development of a new sensing material. The capsules are not only equipped with electronics for tracking but also feature an "optical sensing membrane" that is sensitive to specific gases. This membrane consists of materials that alter their electron behavior in the presence of ammonia gas, which is indicative of H. pylori—a gut bacteria that, when elevated, can signal conditions such as peptic ulcers, gastric cancer, or irritable bowel syndrome. Therefore, the detection of this gas serves as a proxy for early disease detection.

The USC team has tested this ingestible device in various settings, including liquid environments and simulations of a bovine intestine. The combined system comprising the ingestible device and the wearable coil is compact and practical, clearing a pathway for application in human health. The device is currently undergoing the patent process, and the next phase involves testing with swine models. Beyond its use for early detection of peptic ulcers, gastritis, and gastric cancers, there is potential for monitoring brain health due to the brain-gut axis. Neurotransmitters located in the gut and their regulation are linked to neurodegenerative diseases. The ultimate aim of the USC team's research is to focus on brain health, and they are also exploring non-invasive methods to detect neurotransmitters associated with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

Related Links:
Khan Lab at University of Southern California

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