Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working on a chip that could take place of an endoscopy. Those who’ve had one before are in no rush to experience that again. While a doctor feeds a tube-camera down the patient’s throat to examine their stomach and beyond, patients try not to cough, gag, or be sick. In some cases, it is so uncomfortable they have to be sedated.
The researchers have designed a chip that can be swallowed like a pill to inspect a patient’s gastrointestinal environment for signs of bleeding as it travels through their digestive system.
“Currently, there aren’t that many techniques to investigate what’s going on in the gastrointestinal tract… it’s very difficult to see the biochemical picture, especially in a non-invasive way,” Mark Mimee, an MIT graduate student and one of the lead authors of the project.
The chip relies on electronic as well as bacterial components for its investigation. There are four walls packed with genetically-engineered bacteria that are built to react to haem, a protein found in red blood cells. When the bacteria in the chip comes across any haem, it will bioluminesce, such that if there’s blood, the bacteria will illuminate.
When the bacteria lights up, the chip detects it by a photosensor which is then converted into data, sending it wirelessly to a receiver. The receiver is on a standard phone and communicates through an Android app which was designed by an undergrad student at MIT.
“We looked at the literature to see if there were organisms that existed in nature that naturally sensed haem. We found some examples and we essentially took the machinery from those organisms and combined it into our probiotic strain of E. Coli.”
The bacteria engineered by the MIT researchers is a unique strain of E. coli. While some people may associate the bacteria with food poisoning outbreaks, variants of it are also found in probiotic yogurts — and it’s those that are likely to find their way into the pill.
“Later on when the project was moving along and we were starting to integrate it with the electronics, [other researchers] had reported the detection of other clinically relevant molecules that could be used to monitor disease,” Mimee said. “We also took those sort of sensing systems that had been developed for those and incorporated them.”
The chip’s ability to detect small amounts of blood — researchers have detected as little as 0.25mm2, or around one drop in tests — could be used to detect certain diseases that cause internal bleeding without subjecting patients to endoscopies or colonoscopies. As well as offering a more pleasant alternative to invasive imaging, the chip-pill could potentially be used at home and readings sent directly to patients’ phones, sparing them a visit to the hospital.
The researchers predict that it could take between five and 10 years before the pill could be used commercially. One of the key challenges that will need to be addressed is the size of the pill, which is currently around 3cm by 1cm. While it can be swallowed at that size, for people with damaged gastrointestinal tracts, there’s a risk that its dimensions could cause complications, so future work will look to shrink the device to more manageable levels.
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