What This Fart-Sensing Pill Means for the Future of Medicine

A pharmacist counts pills. Mark Blinch/Reuters

New pills that let doctors see into the human body in real-time present an ethically fraught marvel of medical technology. And, one day, they might be able to figure out why you're so gassy, according to Popular Science. A new paper in Nature Electronics by researchers from RMIT University in Australia details how researchers successfully tested their gas-sensing pills on a small group of people in a pilot study.

As the authors write in their paper, sensors have been developed that can monitor medication levels and give readings of pH inside the body, "but capsules that can provide key information about the chemical composition of the gut are still not available."

To fill that void, the researchers developed a pill that can sense the gases carbon dioxide, hydrogen and oxygen, in the gut. As the researchers note, those gases—along with nitrogen—are the most common ones found in intestines, in proportions that can correspond to the foods a person has eaten. When it comes to flatulence or bloating, as Popular Science writes, doctors generally need to know whether the inability to break down certain foods, an imbalance in gut microbes, or conditions like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), is causing excess gas before they can help a person eliminate it. By parsing the proportions of each gas in a person's gut, the pill could help tell the microbes or foods that may be causing buildup of those gases.

To test the pills, the team took six people and put three of them on a high-fiber diet and then put three of them on a low-fiber diet. Then they had them take the pill. The measurements from the pill revealed which gasses were present in the gut and, in this way, helped pinpoint which diet had been the source of these gasses.

Black beans for sale at a market. Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty

This paper comes at time when digital pills, small devices meant to monitor the body from the inside, are gaining attention. The FDA approved the "first-ever digital pill," a modified version of the antipsychotic drug Abilify, in November, Newsweek previously reported. The new version of the pill would make it possible to collect data on whether and when patients take their medication. Patients would be able to share this information with their doctors.

Augmenting pills in this way has raised ethical concerns. Especially for a pill sometimes used to treat people who may be experiencing paranoid delusions, some have raised concerns that the feeling of being spied on might discourage people from taking their medication altogether.

While those privacy concerns are very much alive when it comes to pills that are augmented to collect data about the bodies they enter, as Popular Science writes, the researchers believe there's real potential for good here: it could, they say, potentially help treat and monitor disorders of the gut in the future. Current methods of testing for gut disorders, they claim, are uncomfortable or only partially reliable.

Like any claims supported by a single study, particularly one that looks at six people, it's important to take this one with a grain of salt, in addition to all that fiber.