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U.S.: Tracking with Smart Pills for Better Gut Diagnoses

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Researchers devised a method to embed a technological platform similar to GPS on smart pills. The instrument is called a “GPS” since it determines the smart pills’ location. These “smart pills” are routinely swallowed, collected health data, recorded photos, and even administered medications as they move through the digestive tract.

The iMAG (Ingestible Microdevices for Anatomic-mapping of Gastrointestinal-tract) technology is not the first version of a trackable smart pill. Still, its developers claim it is the most accurate and most accessible to track yet devised. To execute its function correctly, a smart pill must know where it is in the body, just like a delivery driver must know which street they are on to deliver a package to the correct destination.

“Wireless localisation of smart pills or other tiny devices deep inside the body with great accuracy is difficult,” said Azita Emami, Andrew and Peggy Cherng, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Medical Engineering and executive officer for electrical engineering.

According to Mikhail Shapiro, a professor of chemical engineering and medical engineering and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, there are three ways to access areas inside the body to view what’s going on.

“We can insert a colonoscopy gadget in there, cut the body open, or you can consume a small tablet that goes through you and takes the essential measures,” Shapiro added. “I believe most people will choose the latter option if it provides the performance needed to identify and treat them.”

According to Emami, future research would focus on making the pills more precise, less expensive, and capable of releasing medications or performing other tasks in response to an external signal. She also hopes to see the tablets used during surgery, such as pinpointing the tumour’s exact location.

Trackable pills

Caltech PhD student Saransh Sharma developed the GPS smart-pill technology in collaboration with Emami and Shapiro. Their research was published in the journal Nature Electronics.

Trackable smart tablets are helpful not only for their prospective ability to deliver medications to a specific area in the digestive tract—say, where a tumour is located—but also for a far more mundane purpose. For instance, to monitor GI (gastrointestinal) tract motility. Even though many people have GI canal slowdowns, physicians have no idea where the slowdown is or how things are flowing in the GI tract.

According to Emami, previous attempts at real-time movement tracking of smart pills relied on RF triangulation. However, it can only determine the location of a smart tablet with a resolution of a few centimetres, which is insufficient when trying to pinpoint where a pill is sitting amid the twists and turns of the intestines.

The iMAG pill, on the other hand, has the potential to locate the tablet with submillimetre accuracy. With this real-time movement monitoring, the smart drug might eventually include medicine administration or sensing.

The researchers accomplished this by tucking electronics capable of detecting the strength of magnetic fields into the pill. In addition, the team devised and manufactured flat magnetic coils with exact magnetic-field gradients. Because the magnetic-field gradients’ characteristics are so precise, the pill can establish its location in the coils by sensing the strength of the magnetic field. The capsule then wirelessly transmits this information to a nearby smartphone through Bluetooth.

However, the technology is small and portable enough that it might be put into a jacket or a backpack, allowing data from a pill swallowed by a human patient to be collected throughout the day, wherever the patient may be. Therefore, the device becomes easier to use medical technology for the patient compared to an X-ray or an MRI. Even the patient can take the device home with them.


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