New ingestible sensor could help researchers learn more about the gut

By Jonah Comstock

A group of researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia have developed a new ingestible sensor for a novel purpose: investigating the microbiome and gasses in the gut. In a new published in Nature Electronics, researchers display not only the potential of the new ingestible sensor, but new learnings that suggest, among other things, a previously undiscovered defense system in the gut.

"Previously, we have had to rely on faecal samples or surgery to sample and analyse microbes in the gut," Professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, study lead and one of the inventors of the capsule, said in a statement. "But this meant measuring them when they are not a true reflection of the gut microbiota at that time. Our capsule will offer a non-invasive method to measure microbiome activity."

The capsule contains gas sensors for measuring levels of hydrogen and oxygen as well as a temperature sensor. The sensor data is transmitted via radio to a recevier worn by the ingester and via Bluetooth to a smartphone for analysis. This trial, on seven human volunteers, followed multiple trials of the technology in pigs. 

As a feasibility trial, the study demonstrated that the technology is both safe and effective -- and could some day potentially be used as a diagnostic tool for gut-related diseases.

"The trials show that the capsules are perfectly safe, with no retention," ​Dr. Kyle Berean, the capsule's other inventor, said in a statement. "Our ingestible sensors offer a potential diagnostic tool for many disorders of the gut from food nutrient malabsorption to colon cancer. It is good news that a less invasive procedure will now be an option for so many people in the future."

But the data itself also contained some surprising revelations. One was that the colon was found to contain more oxygen than previously believed. Another was that the stomach appears to use an oxidiser to fight foreign bodies in the gut. 

"We found that the stomach releases oxidising chemicals to break down and beat foreign compounds that are staying in the stomach for longer than usual," Kalantar-zadeh said. "This could represent a gastric protection system against foreign bodies. Such an immune mechanism has never been reported before."

Berean and Kalantar-zadeh are partnering with health tech commercialization group to found a new company, Atmo Biosciences, that will conduct phase 2 human trials and eventually commercialize the product.