A small device that uses the power of artificial intelligence (AI) could mean the end of painful endoscopic exams for patients with colon cancer, scientists believe.
The small robotic capsule known as Sonopill is considered the culmination of a decade of research by an international consortium of engineers and scientists.
A feasibility study has now shown that it is technically possible to use an AI system to guide the tiny capsule into the colon to obtain micro-sonographic images.
It is also said that the images captured by Sonopill are better able to identify some types of cellular changes associated with cancer, allowing patients to receive life-saving treatment promptly.
It is hoped that the technology may eventually reduce the need for painful exams in which a semi-rigid scope is passed to the intestine.
Bowel cancer is the second largest killer of cancer in the UK and is on the rise among those under 50 years.
The consortium has developed a technique called intelligent magnetic manipulation, which uses harmless magnetic forces to maneuver the device through the colon.
The AI system ensures that the capsule, currently with a diameter of 21mm and a length of 39mm, can be positioned correctly against the wall of the intestine to obtain the best micro-ultrasound images.
Lead researcher Sandy Cochran, professor of materials and ultrasound systems at the University of Glasgow, said: "We are very excited about the results of this feasibility study.
"With a growing demand for endoscopies, it is more important than ever to be able to provide accurate, targeted and economical treatment that is comfortable for patients.
"Today, we are one step closer to delivering this through the unique combination of light and sound sensing.
"We expect Sonopill to be available to all patients in the near future as part of regular medical examinations, effectively detecting serious illness at an early stage and monitoring the health of the digestive system of all."
Senior author on the paper, Professor Pietro Valdastri, who holds the chair in robotics and autonomous systems at the University of Leeds, said: "Technology has the potential to change the way doctors perform examinations of the gastrointestinal tract.
"Previous studies have shown that the micro-ultrasound was able to capture high-resolution images and visualize small lesions in the superficial layers of the intestine, valuable information about the first signs of the disease.
"With this study, we have shown that intelligent magnetic manipulation is an effective technique for guiding a micro-ultrasonic capsule to perform directed images within the human body in a noninvasive way.
"The platform is able to locate the Sonopill's position at any time and adjust the external magnet to perform a diagnostic scan while maintaining a high-quality ultrasound signal.
"This finding has the potential to allow painless diagnosis through a micro-ultrasonic pill throughout the gastrointestinal tract."
The results of the feasibility study are published in the journal Science Robotics.
– Press Association