Robotic capsule inspects colon for cancer

A tiny robotic capsule that can be guided through the colon to take micro-ultrasound images of the gut is being developed by a UK-led consortium.

colon
The robotic arm uses magnetic forces to guide the Sonopill through colon.
Picture credit: Leeds University

Diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, including some bowel cancers, account for approximately eight million deaths a year worldwide.

The Sonopill, being developed by researchers at Leeds, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt and Dundee Universities, alongside Vanderbilt University in the US, could ultimately replace the need for patients to undergo a potentially painful endoscopic examination, in which a long, semi-rigid scope is passed into the bowel.

The robotic device, which has successfully completed feasibility studies and is described in the journal Science Robotics, is based on a technique called intelligent magnetic manipulation, according to Pietro Valdastri, chair in robotics and autonomous systems at Leeds University.

A robotic arm equipped with a series of magnets is passed over the patient. The magnets on the arm interact with a magnet inside the capsule, manoeuvring it through the colon without the need for a physical connection.

“We are trying to create a system that could replace colonoscopy with a painless alternative,” Valdastri said. “Instead of pushing a stiff tube from the back, we are pulling this capsule with magnetic fields from the front.”

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What’s more, the use of micro-ultrasound means doctors will be able to tell immediately if the tissue is malignant or not, he said.

An artificial intelligence (AI) system ensures the capsule can position itself correctly against the gut wall, to allow it to take the best quality micro-ultrasound images. The AI system can also navigate the device back to the required location if it becomes dislodged.

The Sonopill consists of a small capsule, inside which is a micro ultrasound transducer, an LED light, a camera and a magnet. A small, flexible cable is tethered to the capsule, which also passes into the body via the rectum, and sends ultrasound images back to a computer.

The research, which also included Fujifilm VisualSonics, was funded by the EPSRC, the Royal Society, and the US National Institutes of Health.

Trials of the capsule without the micro-ultrasound transducer are due to begin in September, funded by Cancer Research UK, with the team hoping to start human trials in September 2020.

The researchers are also hoping to obtain additional funding to further their development of the system with micro-ultrasound.

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