Towards a sensor you could swallow to detect gut-related woes, in real time

May 24, 2018

A newly developed device could one day detect the presence of disease-driving molecules in the gut - an otherwise difficult-to-access environment - reading out these results to a cell phone in real time. In a trial demonstration in pigs, it worked to detect molecules indicative of excess bleeding. The researchers who designed this device equipped it with bacteria engineered to sense particular biomolecules in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, but it could be tailored to sense a great number of disease-relevant molecules, they say. The technology, now at the prototype stage, could eventually be rendered sufficiently small for a human patient to ingest - a feat that could equip physicians to better manage or diagnose a range of gut-related diseases. Researchers' understanding of the way altered physiological function in the GI tract leads to diseases like colitis is limited, largely due to difficulties in accessing this region of the body. Few devices available to probe areas close to the GI tract's exterior, like the esophagus or colon, provide measurements under truly physiological conditions. Here, to better detect chemical conditions and biomolecules in the gut, Mark Mimee, Timothy Lu and colleagues created a device they call Ingestible Micro-Bio-Electronic Device, or IMBED. It features bacterial cells designed to sense biomarkers associated with health or disease, and placed in a device with a semipermeable membrane. When target gut molecules diffuse across this membrane, they activate the bacteria, causing them to light up - a signal that can be converted to electric current and sent, via wireless transmitter, to a radio or cell phone. This setup, once in a clinical device, could give a doctor access to patient data in real time, the authors say. As a proof-of-concept for a clinically relevant biomarker, they developed a version of IMBED to detect GI bleeding events in pigs, which proved effective. "...identifying, detecting and quantifying biomolecules will be of great potential benefit to clinical medicine," write Peter R. Gibson and Rebecca E. Burgell, in a related Perspective.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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