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Ingestible Sensors Help Patients with Digestive Movement Issues

Scientists have created an ingestible capsule dotted with sensors capable of detecting pressure in a patient’s gut and pinpointing points of failure.

Ingestible Sensors Help Patients with Digestive Movement Issues

A close-up picture of the capsule. Image Credit: Credit Gerard Cummins, University of Birmingham.

The ingestible system will enable colorectal medical teams to diagnose a patient’s digestive tract movement—or lack thereof—with never-before-seen clarity.

Instead of merely taking images of inside the guts, the device will detect whether it is contracting, how much pressure is applied, and where it might be dormant.

The system has been tested on animals as well as in a synthetic gut. A patent for the invention is currently pending.

The success of the system was reported by the team from Heriot-Watt University, University of Birmingham, and colleagues from the University of Edinburgh in the scholarly journal Device.

Tiny Pressure Sensors Detect How the Gut is Moving

Professor Marc Desmulliez specializes in medical device technology at Heriot-Watt University and leads the project.

This could help transform how we detect gastrointestinal diseases and conditions. The traditional way to look at intestines or the gut is to have an endoscopy - it’s a camera attached to a tube that will hopefully see any visible obstructions or problems.

Marc Desmulliez, Lead Researcher and Professor, Medical Device Technology, Heriot-Watt University

Desmulliez added, “In Scotland, capsule endoscopies have become more common and have been transformative for patients: they swallow a little capsule, it travels along the guts and transmits images wirelessly back to a screen. It’s much more pleasant than an endoscopy. We wanted to find a way to detect when the digestive tract isn’t working, when it’s not contracting and relaxing as it should when pushing waste along, and when there isn’t a visible problem.”

Five years were dedicated to the development of Desmulliez and colleagues’ new system. The study, which examined the use of ultrasonography to identify subcutaneous gastrointestinal pathologies, was supported by UK Research and Innovation’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (UKRI-EPSRC).

This ingestible capsule measures 3 cm in length and 1 cm in diameter. It is dotted with as many as five extremely thin sensors, each thicker than one or two human hairs.

Desmulliez stated, “The pressure sensors will measure movement and activity right along the 8 or 9 m of the gastrointestinal tract. They will identify regions where there’s absolutely no movement of the gut, where the gut is functioning as expected or if there’s something unexpected in terms of movement.”

Technological and Commercial Readiness

The device is extremely resilient due to the number of sensors and their flexibility: it will continue to work even if it is damaged. We have 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.

Dr. Gerard Cummins, Assistant Professor, University of Birmingham

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.”

The team is establishing a spinout firm to move the concept further, and a patent is pending.

They believe that it will take at least a further five years of clinical testing to bring the product to market.

Supporting Health and Care Technology Innovation

To hasten the adoption of cutting-edge research in the field, Heriot-Watt University is establishing a global research institute in health and care technologies. This is a key effort in that area of study, intending to develop use-inspired solutions to tackle global health concerns in a spirit of co-creation.

The development of this device demonstrates how our global research institute will support the creation of ground-breaking technologies that could revolutionize patient care. Bringing together academics, industry experts, and clinicians will ensure these vital developments get to market much quicker. We already have several research projects underway and the next 12 months will be a really exciting time as we showcase our developments on the global stage.

Steve McLaughlin, Deputy Principal Researcher and Professor, Heriot-Watt University


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