Gas-Sensing Pills May Detect Underlying Stomach Problems

3 minute read

We treat all gas pretty much the same way—with a held breath. Then we ignore it. But our bodies are brimming with all kinds of interesting gases, many of which have a lot to say about our health. They’re worth paying attention to, argues a new paper in the journal Trends in Biotechnology.

A multidisciplinary team in Australia say they’ve developed a noninvasive swallowable sensor, in the form of a pill, that can detect the gases brewing inside of you. Currently, experts rely on indirect measurements—like breath and fecal analysis—to gauge which gases are in the intestine. But a sensor could tell you straight from the source.

The gas capsules aren’t yet available for human use, and the paper is just a discussion of techniques. But here’s the idea: When bacteria ferment undigested food in your gut, they release gases like carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane, the researchers write. The types of gases bacteria produce, and their concentrations, depend on your health—and in certain concentrations, some gases can indicate gastrointestinal disorders, says Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, study co-author and professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia.

A gas-sensing pill could give you a real-time glimpse into what’s going on in your gut; as the gases permeate the sensor, the sensors produce signals and digitize the data, then send it to an app, he says. “If some organic compound like butyrate goes up, that means something is happening to the wall of the stomach,” he explains, “and the thing that is happening is generally not good, has to be detected and should be addressed very quickly.”

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Even for a person without stomach troubles, the sensor could be useful for figuring out exactly how foods affect the body, Kalantar-zadeh says. “Basically, this tells us if the food that we take transforms into energy efficiently in our body or not,” he explains. “That can actually have a very big impact on all the controversies about food.”

While food science is tormented by conflicting findings—are low-carb diets good or bad?—gas is more straightforward, Kalantar-zadeh says. “Information about the gases inside the stomach are not complicated information,” he says. “Automatically, we can have libraries that compare the charts for you, so basically it needs just an app to give you the information.”

Currently, researchers are digging into our gut bacteria to figure out exactly what they say about our health, unearthing links to all kinds of issues from food allergies to how the body responds to medication to red meat’s role in heart failure. “This at least adds an extra degree of certainty to those kind of associations,” says Kalantar-zadeh. “It can have such a potential impact on the health of human beings.”

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