Getting to the guts of it: gulp a device

January 09, 2018

An Australian-developed swallowable sensor could help revolutionise diagnoses of digestive problems.

An electronic capsule invented by Australian scientists has helped them discover new information about the gut that could help doctors revolutionise how they diagnose and treat digestive problems.

The scientists from Melbourne's RMIT University first unveiled their swallowable device early in 2015 in the hope it would it would help doctors work out what foods were problematic for their patients by detecting and measuring intestinal gases produced by gut bacteria.

Now they have released results from the first human trials of the capsule, which collects information about the gases and transmits it to a hand-held device and mobile phone for doctors to read.

A group of 26 people took part in the trials last year and proved the capsule was safe for use in humans, paving the way for more extensive tests in 2019.

As a bonus, the trials delivered a surprising batch of new information about the workings of the gut's microbiome, the colony of trillions of bacteria that are believed to help keep us healthy.

Lead researcher and co-inventor of the capsule, Professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, said they discovered the stomach releases oxidising chemicals to get rid of foreign bodies, possibly as a protection mechanism.

They also discovered that people on high-fibre diets have high amounts of oxygen in their colon - information that overturns a long-held theory that the colon is oxygen free and may help scientists work out how colon cancer develops.

"For the first time we have a tool that actually gives information about the activities of the microbiome inside the gut," Prof Kalantar-zadeh told AAP.

The scientists are trying to raise up to $8 million for the next round of clinical trials of the device in 300 patients with digestive issues including irritable bowel syndrome and intestinal bacterial overgrowth.

All going well, they hope the capsule will be on sale by 2020 for between $100 and $200.

The capsule's other co-inventor, Dr Kyle Berean, said the trial results suggested the capsule was more accurate and less invasive than existing methods used to measure intestinal gases.

The most common methods currently used are breath and faecal tests, with some patients undergoing surgery so direct samples from the gut can be examined.

"Our ingestible sensors offer a potential diagnostic tool for many disorders of the gut, from food nutrient malabsorption to colon cancer," Dr Berean said.

"It is good news that a less invasive procedure will now be an option for so many people in the future."

The results from the first human trials were published on Thursday in the journal Nature Electronics.

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