Ingestible Sensor Offers Inside Peek Into Patients’ Gut Health

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In a unique clinical trial, scientists peered into patients’ digestive and gastrointestinal systems using a swallowable sensor and were able to assess critical aspects of a person’s gut health.

The new study, performed on seven human subjects, revealed levels of gases within the gut that the researchers could monitor in real time. The sensor, which is roughly the size of a vitamin, captured patients’ levels of hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and oxygen and sent the measurements to an app on a smartphone, according to the study in Nature Electronics.

Credit: RMIT University/Peter Clarke, CC BY 4.0

Understanding the presence and amount of gases in the stomach and intestines can help scientists better deal with gastrointestinal diseases and other disorders.

“This new information could help us better understand how debilitating diseases like colon cancer occur,” said lead author Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, a professor at RMIT University and developer of the capsule technology.

The study assessed the gas profiles of patients who were on either a low- or high-fiber diet. Transmitting signals from the patients’ abdomens, the sensors were able to accurately identify when the body began to ferment foods. The researchers believe such a tracking system can help medical professionals keep track of a patient’s digestion and monitor gut health.

A New Immune Response

The researchers, working from RMIT University and Monash University in Australia, discovered another novel finding during their study that they say represents an entirely new understanding of how the body – specifically, the stomach – fights off threats.

“We found that the stomach releases oxidizing chemicals to break down and beat foreign compounds that are staying in the stomach for longer than usual,” said Kalantar-zadeh.

“This could represent a gastric protection system against foreign bodies,” he added. “Such an immune mechanism has never been reported before.”

The team also discovered that the colon may contain oxygen during the digestive process.

Related: Fructan Carbs, Not Gluten, May Actually Be the Cause of Gut Issues

“Trials showed the presence of high concentrations of oxygen in the colon under an extremely high-fiber diet,” said Kalantar-zadeh. “This contradicts the old belief that the colon is always oxygen free.”

In addition to surveying gas levels, the sensor also has the capacity to measure microorganisms, such as bacteria, living in the gut. The health of the intestinal microbiome, which is comprised of an enormous number of bacterial species, is key to understanding a person’s gut health.

“Previously, we have had to rely on fecal samples or surgery to sample and analyze microbes in the gut,” Kalantar-zadeh said.

That method had its flaws, mainly because the status of the microbiome was likely to change as it left the intestines. 

Related: Balancing Gut Bacteria Could Be the Key to Solving Chronic Stomach Problems

“But this meant measuring them when they are not a true reflection of the gut microbiota at that time. Our capsule will offer a non-invasive method to measure microbiome activity,” Kalantar-zadeh said.

Now that the first phase of clinical trials is over, the researchers plan to move onto phase II. They hope to bring the sensor technology to patients and doctors in the near future.

“Our ingestible sensors offer a potential diagnostic tool for many disorders of the gut from food nutrient malabsorption to colon cancer. It is good news that a less invasive procedure will now be an option for so many people in the future,” said co-author Dr. Kyle Berean, who co-developed the capsule technology.

Richard Scott

Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.