Gut Health Problems like Ibs Could Soon Be Diagnosed with a Tiny Sensor That You Swallow

Scientists hope a new sensor small enough to swallow will transform how gut diseases are diagnosed and treated.

Diagnosing gut disorders like colitis and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can be difficult, partly because it's tricky to access this part of the body. But scientists at MIT hope identifying such conditions could soon be as easy as gulping down a sensor.

So far, the technology has been tested in pigs, whereas a prototype sensor loaded with probiotic bacteria was able to flag molecules linked to internal bleeding. The team is believed to be the first to design a device which picks up biomolecules related to gut diseases and sends information to a cell-phone in real-time.

Engineers are now working on making the device small enough for patients to ingest, potentially allowing doctors to diagnose gut conditions on the spot.

Scientists hope a gut sensor could be used to diagnose common digestive issues. Getty Images

The bacteria in the Ingestible Micro-Bio-Electronic Device is wrapped in a semipermeable membrane, and give off light when they detect a disease biomarker. This triggers an electric current, which transmits a wireless signal to a cell phone.

Asked if the device could revolutionize how common gut disorders such as IBS are treated, Mark Mimee, a microbiome engineer at MIT who co-authored the study, told Newsweek: "Potentially! Further work needs to be done to identify the specific molecules perturbed in these conditions and to develop biosensors for them, but the device may aid in the diagnosis of these diseases.

"For chronic diseases, the minimally invasive nature of the device could enable regular monitoring of disease progression to better inform symptom management."

As the sensor is in its nascent stages of development, Mimee predicts it will take a few years before human trials can begin. During that time, the team hopes to make it smaller so it requires just a single chip to operate, and equip it with sensors which pick up a wide range of changes in a patient's gastrointestinal environment.

Mimee explained the study published in the journal Science also demonstrates more widely that the combination of living cells in an electronic device could pave the way for a new class of sensors that can report back from harsh biological environments like the gastrointestinal tract.

Commenting on the downfalls of harnessing living cells and electronic devices separately, he said: "On the one hand, living cells could make great sensors for biomolecules in harsh environments like the gastrointestinal tract, but they cannot communicate their sensing results over long distances, such as from inside to outside the body.

"On the other hand, purely electronic devices are not great at sensing specific molecules, but they can process information and communicate it over large distances."

Dr. Anton Emmanuel, a senior lecturer in neuro-gastroenterology at University College London, U.K., and consultant gastroenterologist at University College Hospital who was not involved in the study told Newsweek said the technology was "exciting" in the way it assesses the microbial environment in the stomach.

An ingestible sensor by scientists at MIT which has been tested out in pigs. Lillie Paquette/MIT School of Engineering

However, he said that the human microbiome is quite distinct from that of other mammals, like pigs, and more research is needed to prove the technology will work in humans.

"IBS is hard to diagnose, and maybe this technology will show us individual variations in specific patients," added Dr. Emmanuel, who is a medical trustee at digestive disease charity Core. He predicted that the technology, which could help doctors prescribe probiotics for patients, could be made available in the next five years, if it is shown to be safe.

It could also be used in patients with anemia or bleeding, as it can be hard to pinpoint the source of blood during an endoscopy.