The engineers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a soft, ingestible and expanding pill that acts as a sensor. It can track stomach ulcers, cancer and other gastrointestinal conditions for one month.
This research was published in Nature Communications journal on 30 January 2019.
This soft and small pill can expand itself when it gets in contact with water to monitor the insides of the stomach. The pill could stay inside the body in the same condition for up to 30 days.
There is a sensor embedded inside the pill that helps in sending information from within the stomach of a human body to a computer located outside.
After testing the pill in a few solutions similar to the gastric juices (found inside the body), the researchers found that the pill could swell up to 100 times its size in about 15 min. This is much faster than existing swellable hydrogels.
The pill consists of two types of hydrogels - mixtures of polymers and water that resemble the consistency of Jell-O. This combination makes it faster for the pill to swell without disturbing the stomach’s churning acidic environment.
The inner layer of the pill is made of sodium polyacrylate that absorbs liquid quickly and helps in swelling faster. The outer layer contains a multitude of nanoscopic, crystalline chains that work as anti-fatigue.
Finally, to test the pill’s toughness, researchers manually squeezed it thousands of times even with force greater than what the pill would witness inside the stomach.
"The dream is to have a Jell-O-like smart pill, that once swallowed stays in the stomach and monitors the patient's health for a long time, such as a month," said researcher Xuanhe Zhao, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.
Further Zhao added, "With our design, you wouldn't need to go through a painful process to implant a rigid balloon. Maybe you can take a few of these pills instead, to help fill out your stomach, and lose weight. We see many possibilities for this hydrogel device."
Study’s co-lead author Xinyue Liu stated, "Currently, when people try to design these highly swellable gels, they usually use diffusion, letting water gradually diffuse into the hydrogel network. But to swell to the size of a ping-pong ball takes hours or even days. It's longer than the emptying time of the stomach."
Also, Lin, another co-author of the study said, “You would have to crack through many crystalline domains to break this membrane. That’s what makes this hydrogel extremely robust, and at the same time, soft.”
Researchers say that in the near future tiny cameras may also be embedded inside the pill. This will help in imaging and monitoring the progress of tumor and ulcers inside the body.
This research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The pill has been tested multiple times in each scenario it might face inside the body. Hence, the pill is well-examined and assumed to bring positive results.