A New Swallowable Sensor Can Give You Major Insights About Your Gut Microbiome, & It’s Showing Just How Many Things Your Gut Bacteria Affects

During your annual physical, your doctor typically checks your vitals (aka temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate) as a benchmark to see how your body is functioning. But the more we learn about our gut microbiome, the more it makes sense to look at it as one of our vitals, too. Future doctor appointments may include swallowing an ingestible electronic capsule to see how your gut is doing: A new swallowable sensor that can tell you about your gut microbiome has been tested on humans, and the researchers behind the study say it's safe to use.

While it likely won't be available until at least 2020, this swallowable sensor has the potential to help doctors diagnose and treat digestive problems by accessing the gut microbiome, which is typically looked at through poop sample. Research has already shown that the gut microbiome — aka the ecosystem of bacteria and other microorganism that lives in your digestive system — can affect your health in myriad ways that are still being explored. Scientists believe that what goes on in your microbiome may have an impact on the development of many diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, and circulatory disease.

The initial trials for the swallowable pill, which concluded in 2017, were made up of a group of 26 people. The capsules collected information about the gases that were being released by the participants’ guts (for context: the same kind of gas that you, well, pass) and transmitted the results to a hand-held device and mobile phone for doctors and patients to review. More extensive testing is scheduled for 2019.

"Our capsules were very selective and sensitive in defining the conditions of the gut, much more selective and sensitive than, say, analysis of fecal samples," lead researcher Professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh said in a press release.

While there is more testing to be done, what researchers found during the first trial is promising. "We have many observations that have not been reported before," Professor Kalantar-zadeh said. For starters, the team discovered that the stomach has a potential protection mechanism to get rid of foreign bodies. The sensor detecting oxidising chemicals when these foreign bodies were present.

Another finding may help scientists better understand how colon cancer develops. Researchers on this team found that people with high-fiber diets have more oxygen in their colon, a finding that goes against the long-held belief that all colons are free of oxygen, according to the researchers. For those of us who aren’t scientists, this may not sound like a big deal, but the capsule's co-inventor, Dr. Kyle Berean, explained to SBS News why this discovery was so important: "If we can actually have a dietary intervention that pushes a lot of oxygen into the colon, we can kill off a lot of bacteria, and maybe replace antibiotics and some of the problems that come with antibiotics won't be a problem in the future.”

Keegan Hughes, a Melbourne-based public servant, was one of the 26 test subjects, and he told SBS News the trial was "like something out of the future."

He continued, “Eating right is really important, but when you're trying a new diet you don't really know how good it is or what it's doing to you when you start it. With a pill like this, you could see what was happening to your gut and how quickly your body is responding."

This trial is the first of its kind and could replace more invasive procedures that can detect digestive gases, a development that could benefit millions of people. "Right now there's one in five people that suffer from gastrointestinal disorders, and up to 15 percent of these people will never get a proper diagnosis," Dr. Berean explained. "If we can use a device like this to get a rapid diagnosis, it will make a tremendous difference to the burden on the healthcare system."

If you’re ready to get your hands on this capsule, you’ll have to wait a couple years and pay between $100 and $200. As this capsule improves, however, it may become a normal part of your visit to the doctor.