Tech Focus: Ingestible Electronic Pills For Stomach Diagnosis

Just as IoT is taking the tech world by storm, ingestible pills enable doctors and researchers to emplace micro sensors in our bodies to monitor sustained measurements for diagnosis or research.

In this guest blog, Nick Van Helleputte and Chris Van Hoof discuss how ingestible or electronic pills can revolutionise the way stomach ailments are diagnosed.

Mock-up of an ingestible pill with prototype transceiver. Image: Imec.

Mock-up of an ingestible pill with prototype transceiver. Image: Imec.

Speak about an electronic pill or a small ingestible machine that can be swallowed by patients to monitor their bodies – and what comes to mind is often swarms of nanobots.

The reality is a little different.

Today, breakthroughs in electronics are making it possible to imagine such ingestibles, which are small enough to be swallowed so they can stay inside a body to monitor, say, a person’s stomach condition over a period of time.

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These nifty gadgets open up a whole new frontier in medical diagnosis and research.

Think the Internet of Things (IoT) but applied to the interior of our bodies.

By emplacing sensors within our bodies, doctors and researchers don’t just get a one-off snapshot of the organ of interest.

The sensors can provide sustained monitoring of measurements over a period of time, enabling the identification of trends in the data, or triggering of alerts to flag out anomalies breaching threshold levels.

This means a doctor would be able to more accurately see the changes in a person’s digestive tract, for example, instead of having only a quick look by using a scope or collecting stool samples.

So, instead of a number of nanobots swimming inside a person, ingestibles are miniaturised versions of electronic devices that require low power and have reliable wireless communication to relay the signals that they are reading.

In February 2020, Belgium-based research outfit imec presented the world’s first fully integrated millimetre-scale wireless transceiver for ingestibles or electronic analytical devices that can be swallowed.

This breakthrough, presented at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) 2020 conference at San Francisco in February, means that in the future, ingestible devices could be easier to be manufactured and be more effective in staying in a stomach to monitor important signs of diseases, such as diabetes, Crohn’s Disease or coeliac.

Over a period of time, the ingestible can detect changes in biomarkers, such as pH level, temperature and pressure.

Alternatively, it can also be placed at a particular place in a stomach, using tiny “needles” that guide its travel, to measure changes over a full digestive cycle, for example.

If you’ve watched the movie “Inner Space”, you’ll share the thrill that I feel as Nick and Chris share the promises that ingestible pills hold in illuminating the interior of our bodies.

If you’ve watched the movie “Inner Space”, you’ll share the thrill that I feel as Nick and Chris share the promises that ingestible pills hold in illuminating the interior of our bodies.

Innovation in this area will become important.

Global metabolic health is dropping at an alarming rate and is linked to a wide variety of diseases, for which very limited technologies exist to measure biochemical processes in the gastro-intestinal tract.

What many people may not know is that ingestibles are not new.

The first such devices were developed in the middle of the last century, but the takeup has not been fast from the medical industry in the 70 years they have been around.

There have been camera pills, for example, that let doctors look inside the digestive tract.

These have their merits but are limited to optical recordings and hence only useful for cases where a structural abnormality can be seen.

These include ulcers or bleeding.

Dr Chris Van Hoof is vice-president of imec’s Connected Health Solutions R&D and general manager of the OnePlanet Research Center in Gelderland. Besides delivering solutions to the industry, his work has also resulted in five startups (four in the healthcare domain). He is also a full professor at the University of Leuven and imec Fellow.

Dr Chris Van Hoof is vice-president of imec’s Connected Health Solutions R&D and general manager of the OnePlanet Research Center in Gelderland. Besides delivering solutions to the industry, his work has also resulted in five startups (four in the healthcare domain). He is also a full professor at the University of Leuven and imec Fellow.

Ironically, the reason for the rather slow takeup of ingestibles beyond camera-pills until now has less to do with the limitations of electronics than the easy access to current diagnostic tools.

Today’s diagnostics tests – mainly in the form of a stool sample or a more invasive scope – can provide much useful information, such as showing the presence of polyps or blood.

However, these often offer only a snapshot of a certain point in time.

The digestive tract is far from a homogeneous and static environment.

About 10m long, the environment contains liquids, solids and gasses.

It does not only change over distance (from the throat to stomach to gut), but also over time (say, an empty or full stomach) and over location (a lot of biochemical reactions happen at the intestinal walls).

Like measuring air quality in a traffic tunnel, the context is important as well.

Where the sensor is located and at what time the reading is taken are both essential to a fuller understanding of what is being measured.

It is with this in mind that many researchers are now pursuing innovations in ingestibles.

In the last five years, there has been an explosion of technical research papers on the topic, mostly on transducers and analytes.

Dr Nick Van Helleputte is an R&D manager of the connected health solutions team at Belgium-based research outfit imec. His research focus is on ultra-low-power circuits for biomedical applications. He has been involved in analog and mixed-signal chip design for wearable and implantable healthcare solutions.

Dr Nick Van Helleputte is an R&D manager of the connected health solutions team at Belgium-based research outfit imec. His research focus is on ultra-low-power circuits for biomedical applications. He has been involved in analog and mixed-signal chip design for wearable and implantable healthcare solutions.

Usually, about a year after an innovation is published, what follows are clinical publications reporting on the medical and biological insights obtained with these newest technologies.

Going forward, one challenge for ingestibles is that they are often used for dedicated purposes.

Currently, there are devices that help monitor athletes’ performance, for example.

What new technologies, including the ingestible technology from imec, aims to do is open up a wider range of uses.

By being easier to build and create, future ingestibles would help to better detect diseases by staying longer in a digestive tract.

To advance this, it is important that technology innovators work with clinical experts. As a start, it will complement existing lab tools.

In future, ingestibles can provide a more holistic view of a patient’s condition, allowing doctors to make better diagnoses and save lives.

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