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A self-powered ingestible sensor opens new avenues for gut research: Researchers develop a self-powered ingestible sensor system designed to monitor metabolites in the small intestine over time

Engineering researchers have developed a battery-free, pill-shaped ingestible biosensing system designed to provide continuous monitoring in the intestinal environment. It gives scientists the ability to monitor gut metabolites in real time, which wasn’t possible before. This feat of technological integration could unlock new understanding of intestinal metabolite composition, which significantly impacts human health overall.

The work, led by engineers at the University of California San Diego, appears in the December issue of the journal Nature Communications.

The ingestible, biofuel-driven sensor facilitates in-situ access to the small intestine, making glucose monitoring easier while generating continuous results. These measurements provide a critical component of tracking overall gastrointestinal health, a major factor in studying nutrition, diagnosing and treating various diseases, preventing obesity, and more.

“In our experiments, the battery-free biosensor technology continuously monitored glucose levels in the small intestines of pigs 14 hours after ingestion, yielding measurements every five seconds for two to five hours,” said Ernesto De La Paz Andres, a nanoengineering graduate student at UC San Diego and one of the co-first authors on the paper. “Our next step is to reduce the size of the pills from the current 2.6 cm in length so they will be easier for human subjects to swallow.”

Older methods for directly monitoring the inside of the small intestine can cause significant discomfort for patients while generating only single short data recordings of an environment that continuously changes. By contrast, this biosensor provides access to continuous data readings over time. The platform could also be used to develop new ways to study the microbiome of the small intestine. The “smart pill” approach could lead to simpler and cheaper ways to monitor the small intestine, which could lead to significant cost savings in the future.

“Currently, the way to sample fluid inside the stomach and intestines is to do an endoscopy, where a catheter is inserted down your throat and into your GI tract by a doctor,” said Patrick Mercier, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC San Diego who led the team along with nanoengineering professor Joseph Wang. Wang and Mercier co-direct the UC San Diego Center for Wearable Sensors. “By combining the ultra-low-power circuit and wireless technologies from my lab with glucose-powered fuel cell and cutting-edge electrochemical sensing from the lab of UC San Diego nanoengineering professor Joseph Wang, we have an opportunity to create new modalities for understanding what is happening in the small intestine,” said Mercier.

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