Smart pill uses luminescing bacteria to diagnose gut problems
Not only are colonoscopies invasive and uncomfortable, they may also miss gut-problem-related biomarkers that are only present in the body for a short time. A new "smart pill" is designed to address such shortcomings, utilizing live light-up bacteria.
Described as being "the size of a blueberry," the prototype device was created by scientists from MIT, Boston University, the University of Chicago, biotech firm Analog Devices, and Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. It builds on a previously developed capsule, which was much larger and thus harder to swallow.
The new pill measures less than 1.4 cubic centimeters (0.09 cubic inches), and incorporates genetically engineered probiotic bacteria, electronic components, and a minuscule battery.
After the device has been swallowed and has entered the large intestine, the bacteria within it will produce light when exposed to telltale biological molecules associated with certain gut diseases. The onboard electronics detect that light, and respond by transmitting a wireless signal that can be picked up by a doctor's smartphone or computer located outside the body.
Because the procedure is quite simple and noninvasive, it can easily be performed multiple times (each time with a new pill). This means that it stands a much better chance of detecting short-lived biomarkers that just one or two colonoscopies may miss. The pill is ultimately passed from the body with the feces.
In tests performed on pigs, the device was able to both detect and report levels of nitric oxide, high concentrations of which are associated with a number of inflammatory bowel diseases. It is believed that by tweaking the manner in which the bacteria are engineered, other types of biomarkers could also be detected. The pill may additionally be a boon to research on the gastrointestinal system.
"The inner workings of the human gut are still one of the final frontiers of science," said MIT's Assoc. Prof. Timothy Lu. "Our new pill could unlock a wealth of information about the body’s function, its relationship with the environment, and the impact of disease and therapeutic interventions."
A paper on the study was recently published in the journal Nature.