Engineers have discovered a device which could replace the need for patients to undergo an endoscopic examination, a nonsurgical procedure used to examine a person's digestive tract.
According to the study published in the Journal of Science Robotics, it is technically possible to guide a tiny robotic capsule inside the colon, part of the large intestine, to take micro-ultrasound images.
In the place of a semi-rigid scope which was used to be passed into the bowel, leading to an invasive procedure that was painful will now be replaced by a device called Sonopill.
Micro-ultrasound images also have the advantage of being better able to identify some types of cell change associated with cancer.
The consortium has developed a technique called intelligent magnetic manipulation. Based on the principle that magnets can attract and repel one another, a series of magnets on a robotic arm that passes over the patient interacts with a magnet inside the capsule, gently manoeuvring it through the colon.
The magnetic forces used are harmless and can pass through human tissue, doing away with the need for a physical connection between the robotic arm and the capsule.
An artificial intelligence system (AI) ensures the smooth capsule can position itself correctly against the gut wall to get the best quality micro-ultrasound images. The feasibility study also showed should the capsule get dislodged, the AI system can navigate it back to the required location.
Professor Pietro Valdastri, the senior author of the paper, said, "The technology has the potential to change the way doctors conduct examinations of the gastrointestinal tract. Previous studies showed that micro-ultrasound was able to capture high-resolution images and visualise small lesions in the superficial layers of the gut, providing valuable information about the early signs of disease."
"With this study, we show that intelligent magnetic manipulation is an effective technique to guide a micro-ultrasound capsule to perform targeted imaging deep inside the human body. The platform is able to localise the position of the Sonopill at any time and adjust the external driving magnet to perform a diagnostic scan while maintaining a high-quality ultrasound signal. This discovery has the potential to enable painless diagnosis via a micro-ultrasound pill in the entire gastrointestinal tract," he added.
The Sonopill is a small capsule with a diameter of 21mm and length of 39mm, which the engineers say can be scaled down. The capsule houses a micro ultrasound transducer, an LED light, a camera, and a magnet.
A very small flexible cable is tethered to the capsule which also passes into the body via the rectum and sends ultrasound images back to a computer in the examination room.
The feasibility tests were conducted on laboratory models and in animal studies involving pigs.
Diseases of the gastrointestinal tract account for approximately 8 million deaths a year across the world, including some bowel cancers which are linked with high mortality.