Technology

Robotic capsule could spell end of endoscopic examinations, scientists say

The images captured by the Sonopill are said to be better able to identify some types of cell change associated with cancer.

A small device that uses the power of artificial intelligence (AI) could spell the end of painful endoscopic examinations for colon cancer patients, scientists believe.

The tiny robotic capsule known as a Sonopill is said to be the culmination of a decade of research by an international consortium of engineers and scientists.

A feasibility study has now shown that it is is technically possible to use an AI system to guide the tiny capsule inside the colon to take micro-ultrasound images.

The images captured by the Sonopill are also said to be better able to identify some types of cell change associated with cancer, enabling patients to receive life-saving treatment promptly.

It is hoped the technology could eventually reduce the need for painful examinations in which a semi-rigid scope is passed into the bowel.

Bowel cancer is the UK’s second biggest cancer killer and is on the rise among those under the age of 50.

The consortium has developed a technique called intelligent magnetic manipulation, which uses harmless magnetic forces to manoeuvre the device through the colon.

The AI system ensures the capsule, currently with a diameter of 21mm and length of 39mm, can position itself correctly against the gut wall to get the best quality micro-ultrasound images.

Lead researcher Sandy Cochran, professor of ultrasound materials and systems at the University of Glasgow, said: “We’re really excited by the results of this feasibility study.

“With an increasing demand for endoscopies, it is more important than ever to be able to deliver a precise, targeted, and cost-effective treatment that is comfortable for patients.

“Today, we are one step closer to delivering that through the unique combination of sensing light and sound.

“We hope that the Sonopill will be available to all patients in the near future as part of regular medical check-ups, effectively catching serious diseases at an early stage and monitoring the health of everyone’s digestive system.”

Senior author on the paper, Professor Pietro Valdastri, who holds the chair in robotics and autonomous systems at the University of Leeds, said: “The technology has the potential to change the way doctors conduct examinations of the gastrointestinal tract.

“Previous studies showed that micro-ultrasound was able to capture high-resolution images and visualise small lesions in the superficial layers of the gut, valuable information about the early signs of disease.

“With this study, we show that intelligent magnetic manipulation is an effective technique to guide a micro-ultrasound capsule to perform targeted imaging deep inside the human body in a non-invasive way.

“The platform is able to localise the position of the Sonopill at any time and adjust the external driving magnet to perform a diagnostic scan while maintaining a high quality ultrasound signal.

“This discovery has the potential to enable painless diagnosis via a micro ultrasound pill in the entire gastrointestinal tract.”

The results of the feasibility study are published in the journal Science Robotics.

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