It’s not always talked about in polite company, but your body produces a lot of gases scientists know little about.
A new smart pill, designed at Melbourne’s RMIT University, could help us learn more and may eventually assist in customising what we eat to suit our bodies.
Researchers from the Centre for Advanced Electronics and Sensors have developed the pill, which can measure intestinal gases, and they have now undertaken the first animal tests using the technology to examine the impact of fibre on the gut.
RMIT professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, whose previous work has included pollution-detecting sensors, told Mashable Australia the development could tell us more about issues linked to intestinal gases, including colon cancer, irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.
When you go to a gastroenterologist, they often use a breath test to measure the gases coming from your mouth, but the value of the test for digestive diagnostics is low. According to Kalantar-zadeh, the smart pill will allow doctors to send the test right to where the gas is produced — inside the gut.
The pill collects data in the gut via a number of sensors, some off-the-shelf and some developed in the lab, which can measure the gas type and concentration. The smart pill’s microprocessor sends the data to a transmitter, which then relays it to a receiver in your mobile phone.
The star component of the smart pill, Kalantar-zadeh said, is its membrane, which allows gases to permeate through to the sensors, while protecting them from the acidic liquid of the stomach. The membrane is made from a polymer with nano material, but he could not say more as the team has patents pending.
Kalantar-zadeh addressed concerns about the dangers of ingesting a battery. He said the pill uses silver oxide batteries — as they are not lithium ion, they are safe to ingest — and can last for about four days.
To test the pill, Kalantar-zadeh’s team decided to start with a basic proposition: the effects of high or low fibre diets. They gave two groups of pigs such diets, as the animals have similar gut configurations to humans, along with the smart pills.
The outcome was surprising. “Hydrogen is a sign of fermentation, and we expected to see more hydrogen [produced] in high fibre diets, but the pig on low fibre produced more hydrogen in the lower intestine,” he said.
After further tests are completed, the outcome of this experiment could provide information about how to treat some digestive illnesses. For instance, one type of irritable bowel syndrome is thought to be caused by overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine.
“It was thought people with this type of IBS should eat low fibre food to produce less gas there, but this shows the opposite,” Kalantar-zadeh said.
However, as the test has only been undertaken on pigs so far, he emphasised the results are not conclusive. Human testing will begin in two months.
In the longterm, Kalantar-zadeh sees big things for his team’s invention. “You will be able to buy it everywhere,” he said, predicting it will one day be available to health-conscious consumers.
It will be particularly helpful for people looking to personalise what they consume. Diet fads are constantly changing — one day, high protein foods are good, the next day they’re bad. One day bread is good, the next it’s not.
“This will put an end to this mistake — not all diets are good for all individuals,” he said. “Maybe protein is good for you, but eating bread is better. This is an incredible future — we will know what food is good for who.”
The findings were published in the January edition of science journal, Gastroenterology.