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Pill-sized device uses spinning laser to image the esophagus


January 15, 2013

The swallowable capsule, and its tether

The swallowable capsule, and its tether

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Barrett’s esophagus is a precancerous condition typically caused by chronic exposure to stomach acid, and is usually diagnosed by inserting an endoscope down the patient’s throat. A tool has been developed, however, that should allow for a quicker, easier way of getting a good look at such peoples’ esophagus – it’s a swallowable capsule that contains a spinning laser.

The device was created by a team at the Harvard University-affiliated Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, led by Prof. Gary Tearney.

The transparent capsule is “about the size of a multivitamin pill,” and is attached by a thin tether to an imaging/control console. Contained within the capsule is an optical frequency domain imaging (OFDI) system, which incorporates a rapidly-spinning near-infrared laser. As the beam swings around, it strikes the adjacent esophageal lining and is reflected back into the capsule, where photosensors detect it. Using that reflected light, a highly-detailed 3D map of the lining is created.

According to Tearney, the microscopic-scale images reveal “much more detail than can be seen with even high-resolution endoscopy.”

Additionally, the capsule can simply be swallowed by the patient and carried down the esophagus by normal muscle contractions, then retrieved by pulling on its tether. Images are acquired both on the way up and down. The patient doesn’t need to be sedated, no special lab or extra equipment is required, and the person administering the procedure doesn’t need to be trained in endoscopy.

It’s also fast. Whereas a typical endoscopic examination reportedly takes about an hour and a half, the capsule can image the entire esophagus in less than one minute – a more complete examination, involving two passes up the esophagus and two down, takes about six minutes.

Test subjects who have tried the new procedure, and who have previously had experience with traditional endoscopy, state that they prefer the capsule.

Source: Harvard University

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

That is very cool, but it says nothing about taking biopsies. Once you have confirmed Barrett’s then they usually take some biopsies to test for dysplasia in the esophagus. Without that info you likely will still need an endoscopi. Still a very cool technology. Maybe in the future it will be able to grab some biopsies along the way.

Jamey Weare

An excellent advancement on endoscopic visualization since it will be more comfortable, especially to unsedated patients, however as Jamey said, there will have to be some further innovations for taking biopsies. Additionally, a typical endoscopy, even with biopsy, performed by a competent gastroenterologist takes about seven minutes, not an hour & a half. All the remaining time (about 40-60 minutes) is sedation recovery, if used.

Anthony Cilluffo

I think this is just one step in a series of related steps toward better scanning of the human body. The second step would be securable bluetooth connection (or other sensor program) followed by some form of digestible and disposable form of the pill. This would make it function at general or low-income hospitals that are less technologically advanced, especially if the disposable price is in a decent bracket.

Nangela Cooper

i guess someday soon it could do biopsy too. the worse part of endoscope was not the procedure, its the spray which is needed to dilate your throat, it tastes like WD40. I felt some achyness on on the left side of my throat, and the procedure i have to lay on my left side since I had it done 3-4 times. Then when I have to do a General Anaesthetic they do need to insert some tubing down the throat, this time I have to lay face up I still got the achyness then I realize my neck had to be crooked. Many yrs ago I did realize i have a small scoliosis on my neck from xray film. Didnt think that small curvature would matter so much!

Jimbo Jim
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