Gutsy Movies Recorded Down the Hatch

Doctors today announced the successful testing of the first camera in a pill. The minicam, which fits into a capsule about twice the size of a peanut, can record up to 6 hours of video as it travels through the stomach, intestines, and colon. According to gastroenterologists, the pill should become a painless alternative for diagnosing intestinal diseases.

Until now, doctors have looked inside the small intestine via a very uncomfortable procedure called sonde enteroscopy, in which a 2-meter-long tube is threaded through the nose and into the digestive tract. The procedure can only reach the first third of the small intestine, leaving tumors or bleeding in the lower part of the small intestine detectable only to x-rays taken after the patient has ingested a barium tracer, a relatively unreliable alternative.

The camera-in-a-pill depends on white-light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that are bright enough to illuminate the inside of the intestine. The chip also uses a new sensor, developed by NASA, that captures the images on a computer chip. The chip then radios the images to antennas taped to the body. That technology, also courtesy of NASA, is much older: John Glenn went into orbit with a similar "radio pill" inside his gut that recorded temperature.

Some of the first movies filmed with the camera were displayed today at the Digestive Disease Week meeting in San Diego. The recordings of the innards of 10 volunteers aren't as crisp as the best endoscopy images, says presenter Paul Swain, a gastroenterologist at Royal London Hospital in England, but the technique was painless--the volunteers excreted the pills after about 24 hours and never felt a thing.

Blair Lewis, a gastroenterologist at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York and now a consultant for Given Imaging, which developed the camera, says he was deeply skeptical of the pill when he first heard about it a year ago--"I must have laughed for a couple minutes," he says. But the footage has convinced him it can work. Lewis's lab will begin human trials for the Food and Drug Administration this summer.