endoscopy capsule camera

The controllable endoscopic capsule is the size of a pill.

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) have led the development of a tiny endoscopic capsule that is reminiscent of science fiction, yet very close to being a practical and invaluable medical tool. Propelled by tails made of copper coils and a flexible polymer, the wireless device is designed to be driven remotely and precisely while travelling through and photographing the inside of the human body. Aside from the fascination that such innovative technology attracts, the real-world implications are substantial for both the accuracy of gastrointestinal diagnoses and patient comfort.

This unique wireless capsule, equipped with a camera, is designed to be swallowed like a pill. Once the capsule enters the patient’s digestive tract, a doctor can then steer the capsule through the body by harnessing the magnetic field of an MRI machine. This control is what sets this new technology apart from traditional endoscopic capsule technology.

Although the capsule endoscopy being used today can provide valuable information, it also has limitations. The traditional capsule endoscopy is akin to sending a log down a river. The speed and course of the capsule are subject to the whims of the body’s “currents.” The physician doesn’t get to control where the capsule goes, and thus, the capsule may not reach areas where there are abnormalities – not to mention that the capsule gets stuck from time to time. And when abnormalities are captured, the doctor still has the burdensome task of searching through tens of thousands of photos to discover the abnormality and then pinpointing where the photo was taken. Uncontrolled speed is also a major issue. When the capsule goes fast, it can lead to blurred, unusable images, and sometimes travel becomes so slow that the capsule’s battery dies before it goes through the entire small intestine.

The new capsule endoscopy, on the other hand, is more like a mini-submarine with a doctor as its captain. The doctor can control the speed and direction of the capsule, and thus, ensure that the entire small intestine is covered. If an abnormality is observed, the capsule can be stopped and the images of the abnormality can taken from a variety of angles. Hence, rather than sifting through thousands of images after the fact, the doctor can detect the abnormality in real time, easily pinpoint the location, and produce a thorough photographic analysis. And not only does this new technique have the potential to be more thorough than a traditional capsule endoscopy, but it also has the potential to be much quicker. The traditional procedure takes approximately 24 hours, whereas researchers expect that the new technique would only require a few hours.

The researchers are also hopeful that the application of this technology will go beyond improving diagnosis. “Our goal is to allow clinicians to make a diagnosis during a single procedure with little discomfort or risk to the patient,” said Nobuhiko Hata, a researcher in the Department of Radiology and leader of the capsule development team. “Ideally, in the future we would be able to utilize this technology to deliver drugs or other treatments directly to tumors or injuries within the digestive track.”

At this point, Hata’s team has successfully tested a prototype of their capsule by guiding it through a tank of water. The next step is to successfully test the capsule inside a human body, and they’re confident that it will travel just as well there.

– Chris P

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