Modern Medicine

Researchers are working on an electronic pill you can take to see if you're sick or not

Key Points
  • An ingestible micro-bio-electronic device has been developed at MIT that can detect blood in the stomach.
  • It could end the need for endoscopy procedures and sedation.
  • The experimental device is part of a boom in internal medicine taking advantage of breakthroughs in technology that allow signals from the body to be transmit to connected devices.
An iPhone being used by a doctor as part of patient examination. Smartphones and computers can now communicate with ingestibles that collect data inside the body, including a 'pill' developed at MIT to detect bleeding in the digestive tract.
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Probing the depths of our digestive system can require special equipment and can be, in the very least, messy.

However, a team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have created a battery-powered capsule that, when swallowed, passes through the digestive system, sending information wirelessly to a smartphone or computer.

A test showed the "pill," or an ingestible micro-bio-electronic device, can detect blood in the stomach, something that would otherwise require an endoscopy and sedation.

"The goal with this sensor is that you would be able to circumvent an unnecessary procedure by just ingesting this capsule, and within a relatively short period of time you would know whether or not there was a bleeding event," said MIT graduate student and lead author on the study, Mark Mimee.

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The research was published Thursday in the medical journal Science.

Creating the capsule caps off years of work by biologists, who have been designing bacteria that respond to markers of disease by producing a signal, such as an emission of light, MIT said. But researchers have needed specialized lab equipment to put the work into practice.

That's where the pill comes in. Here's how it works, as explained by MIT: Bacteria is placed in the capsule, which allows molecules to flow through. The capsule has tiny phototransistors that send the light information to a microprocessor, which broadcasts it wirelessly to a computer or smartphone.

The MIT researchers successfully tested the roughly 1.5-inch capsule in pigs to detect for stomach bleeding.

The hope is researchers can make the device smaller for human use. The capsules could be used to check for disease or conditons in the digestive tract.

"By combining engineered biological sensors together with low-power wireless electronics, we can detect biological signals in the body and in near real-time, enabling new diagnostic capabilities for human health applications," said Timothy Lu, MIT associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science as well as biological engineering.

The study's co-lead author is former MIT postdoc Phillip Nadeau. Senior authors were Lu and Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering.

Sean Rossman, USA Today