MIT researchers developed an ingestible capsule that can monitor vital signs, including heart rate and breathing patterns, from a patient’s gastrointestinal tract. Scientists also say the new device has the potential to also be used to detect signs of respiratory depression during an opioid overdose. Giovanni Traverso, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT who has been working on developing a range of ingestible sensors, told Engadget that the device will be especially useful for sleep studies.
Conventionally, sleep studies require patients to be connected to various sensors and devices. In laboratories and home studies, sensors can be attached to the patient’s scalp, temples, chest, and lungs with cables. A patient may also wear a nasal cannula, a chest belt, and a pulse oximeter that can be connected to a portable monitor. “As you can imagine, trying to sleep with all this machinery can be a challenge,” Traverso told Engadget.
This trial, which used a capsule made by Celero Systems—a startup led by researchers from MIT and Harvard—marks the first time ingestible sensor technology has been tested on humans. In addition to the startup and MIT, the research was led by experts from West Virginia University and other affiliated hospitals.
The capsule contains two small batteries and a wireless antenna that transmits data. The ingestible sensor, which is the size of a vitamin capsule, traveled through the gastrointestinal tract and picked up signals from the device while it was in the stomach. Participants stayed in a sleep lab overnight while the device recorded breathing, heart rate, temperature, and gastric motility. The sensor was also able to detect sleep apnea in one of the patients during the trial. The findings suggest that the ingestible was able to measure health metrics on par with medical-grade diagnostic equipment at the sleep center. Traditionally, patients who need to be diagnosed with specific sleep disorders must spend the night in a sleep lab, where they are attached to a series of sensors and devices. Ingestible sensor technology eliminates the need for this.
Importantly, MIT says that no adverse effects have been reported due to ingesting the capsules. The capsule typically passes through the patient in about a day, although that short internal shelf life may also limit its effectiveness as a tracking device. Traverso told Engadget that his goal is for Celetro, which he co-founded, to eventually contain a mechanism that will allow the capsule to remain in the patient’s stomach for a week.
Dr. Ali Rezai, CEO of the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute at West Virginia University, said there is enormous potential to create a new pathway through this device that will help providers identify when a patient overdoses based on their vital signs. In the future, researchers even anticipate that the devices could incorporate medications internally: Overdose-reversing agents, such as nalmefene, could be administered slowly if a sensor records a person’s breathing rate slowing or stopping. More data from the studies will be available in the coming months.