A*STAR’s Institute of Microelectronics (IME) in Singapore is developing miniature devices that seek out and tag diseased cells in the gut. It is hoped that these ‘mini doctors’ will improve diagnostic capability and lead to more effective treatments for patients.

Microtag embedded in a pig intestine

Microtag embedded in a pig intestine © A*STAR Institute of Microelectronics

Diseases such as colon cancer or Crohn’s diseasestart with abnormal cells or lesions inside the intestines, and are often treatable if caught early. The difficulty is catching the initial imperfections along an internal tract that is nearly five metres long.

One method, known as capsule endoscopy, uses a tiny camera-containing capsule that is swallowed like a pill to take pictures of a patient’s gut. This is a good way to explore the small intestine and other parts of the gut out of reach of rectal or oesophageal endoscopes, but is unable to determine the exact position of problem areas.

Approximate locations of lesions can be worked out by examining the speed and transfer time of the capsule as it travels through the stomach and gut. But this technique can be inaccurate, leading to delays in treatment and adding to patient discomfort.

Scientists at IME have found a way to dramatically improve the accuracy of capsule endoscopy, by developing a heat-activated microtag that can detach from the capsule, then detect and ‘label’ abnormal tissue inside the gastrointestinal tract. Its position in the patient can then be viewed using fluoroscopy (an imaging technique involving an X-ray source and a fluorescent screen), which enables doctors to pinpoint the exact location of abnormal cells.

It’s already been successfully demonstrated in a live pig, and the team are aiming to optimise it for human use.

They hope to make the tagging module in the capsule even smaller so that a single capsule can house four or more of them, which would enable multiple sites to be labelled in the same procedure. They are also working on a tag that the body can eventually absorb, so that the structures cannot linger in the gut and cause further harm.

For further information contact:

Lim Ruiqi
Institute of Microelectronics
Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore
Email: limrq@ime.a-star.edu.sg