Bit by bit, scientists are shining the light on the complex relationship between the bacteria in our gut and our overall health. Its links with weight loss, gene activity, anxiety and depression are just a few promising strands researchers have begun tugging at of late. A new pill could prove a useful tool in learning more about the mechanics at play, hiding sensors inside that can take important gas measurements and send its findings to a smartphone.
Packing sensors into pills in the interests of our well-being isn't a novel idea. For the better part of the last decade scientists have been busily building connected capsules that could serve a variety of uses, from carrying cameras into into the body, to notifying doctors when a patient has taken their drugs, to others that swim through intestinal tracts in search of cancer.
Researchers at Melbourne's RMIT are looking to take advantage of ever-smaller electronics to gain a clearer picture of the gases circulating in our stomachs, which could mean much more efficient ways of diagnosing gut disorders. They've been developing a gas-sensing swallowable capsule that detects and measures hydrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen in the gut, with the data able to be transmitted wirelessly to a smartphone in real-time over Bluetooth, via an RF receiver. It then passes safely through the body once its job is done.
"Hydrogen and carbon dioxide are byproducts created by the microbial communities breaking down your food into smaller molecules you can absorb," co-inventor Dr Kyle Berean tells New Atlas. "By measuring these we can understand how these microbial communities are interacting. Are they in a state of symbiosis (healthy) or in a state of dysbiosis (diseased or disorders like irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease)? Combining this information we can not only tell what is wrong but where it is happening in the gut."
The team completed its first human trials with the device earlier in the year, and in the process discovered a previously unknown immune response. The researchers found that the stomach was releasing oxidizing chemicals to break down foreign compounds that were lingering for too long, the kind that can lead to unpleasant ailments like irritable bowel syndrome.
These trials also established that the device is safe and effective in offering a picture of microbiome activity – but how effective exactly? The problem that the team is trying to overcome is the difficulty and lack of clarity in analyzing microbes in the gut. Tube insertion is one way of doing this but is obviously invasive and rather uncomfortable. Breath-testing is another way, but as Berean tells us, this too has its shortcomings.
"These gases measured in the breath are the exact same as what we are measuring in the gut, it is just that they are diluted by the process of getting it to the breath," he explains. "The gases are generated in the gut, absorbed into the blood, circulated around the body, transferred into the lungs and then exhaled out in your breath. Each one of these steps has a major dilution factor involved and can be masked by your bodies physiological processes."
So in the latest trials, the researchers set out to determine exactly how much more accurate things could be if the measurements were made at the source. Testing revealed that the capsule could measure the key biomarkers with more than 3,000 times the accuracy of breath tests, something the researchers describe as "quite astonishing."
"The figure actually ranges from 3,000 to 5,000, meaning that if we are measuring 30 parts per million in the breath, an extremely low number, we are generally measuring concentration between 10 to 15 percent in the gut," Berean tells New Atlas. "By measuring these gases directly, at their point of production you get a much higher concentration then you do after all of the dilution of getting it the breath."
Berean says that with further work, the device could be used to give indications of a wide range of gastrointestinal disorders, such as irritable bowel disease, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and possibly even colon cancer. Moreover, a clearer picture of the gassy goings-on in our bellies could have all kinds of implications for understanding how gut microbiomes help shape overall human health.
The team is currently raising funds to carry out a large scale trials, with a view of commercializing the technology thereafter. The latest research was published in the journal Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics.
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