New ingestible, expanding pill to track ulcers, stomach cancer

The ingestible hydrogel device as a small pill can swell to a large soft sphere, and deswell to a floppy membrane. Credit: Xinyue Liu, Shaoting Lin/MIT

New York,  MIT engineers have designed an ingestible pill that upon reaching the stomach quickly swells to the size of a soft, squishy ping-pong ball and could potentially track ulcers, cancers, and other intestinal conditions.

The inflatable pill is embedded with a sensor that continuously tracks the stomach’s temperature for up to 30 days.

The pill may safely deliver a number of different sensors to the stomach to monitor, for instance, pH levels, or signs of certain bacteria or viruses.

“The dream is to have a Jell-O-like smart pill, that once swallowed stays in the stomach and monitors the patient’s health for a long time such as a month,” said Xuanhe Zhao, Associate Professor at MIT.

“With our design, you wouldn’t need to go through a painful process to implant a rigid balloon.

“Maybe you can take a few of these pills instead, to help fill out your stomach, and lose weight. We see many possibilities for this hydrogel device,” Zhao said.

If the pill needs to be removed from the stomach, a patient can drink a solution of calcium that triggers the pill to quickly shrink to its original size and pass safely out of the body.

The new pill, detailed in Nature Communications journal, is made from two types of hydrogels — mixtures of polymers and water that resemble the consistency of Jell-O.

The combination enables the pill to quickly swell in the stomach while remaining impervious to the stomach’s churning acidic environment.

In the lab, the researchers dunked the pill in various solutions of water and fluid resembling gastric juices, and found the pill inflated to 100 times its original size in about 15 minutes – much faster than existing swellable hydrogels.

Once inflated, Zhao noted that the pill is about the softness of tofu or Jell-O, yet surprisingly strong.