A camera in a pill to detect cancer

This is not the first time that the idea of swallowing a pill with a camera inside to detect early signs of cancer has been tried (read this article for example). But now, researchers at the University of Washington (UW) have developed a device specifically designed to detect esophageal cancer, the fastest growing cancer in the United States. The casing measures 6 millimeters wide and 18 millimeters long. But the best thing is that an exam will not require anesthesia or sedation, meaning that this scanning device could be cheap enough to follow people affected by a condition called Barrett's esophagus. UW is searching partners to commercialize the device. But read more...

This is not the first time that the idea of swallowing a pill with a camera inside to detect early signs of cancer has been tried (read this article for example). But now, researchers at the University of Washington (UW) have developed a device specifically designed to detect esophageal cancer, the fastest growing cancer in the United States. The casing measures 6 millimeters wide and 18 millimeters long. But the best thing is that an exam will not require anesthesia or sedation, meaning that this scanning device could be cheap enough to follow people affected by a condition called Barrett's esophagus. UW is searching partners to commercialize the device. But read more...

The miniature endoscope from UW

Right now, UW doesn't distribute images of this technology on humans. So, as an example, you can see how "a technician inserts the miniature endoscope into a rolled-up world map. The endoscope has its own light source for peering into dark spaces. And even though the camera's single eye sees only one pixel of the image at a time, it combines all the information to create a high-resolution color picture of a map, or even a person's digestive tract." (Credit: University of Washington) Here is a link to a larger version.

This research has been led by Eric Seibel, a research associate professor of mechanical engineering in the Human Interface Technology Laboratory (HITLab) of the University of Washington, and several of his colleagues in the lab, two research scientists, David Melville and Rich Johnston, and a research engineer, Cameron Lee. Researchers from other departments were also involved in this project.

You'll find more information on this project by visiting the Engineering Study of an Endoscope Design webpage.

Image from the miniature endoscope from UW

Now, let's look at the results obtained by this endoscope watching a world map. "This is the image of the map produced by the endoscope. The devices records 15 color images per second with a resolution of more than 500 lines per inch. (Credit: University of Washington) Here is a link to a larger version.

I don't want to bother you with esophageal cancer, but "because internal scans are expensive most people don't find out they have the condition until it's progressed to cancer, and by that stage the survival rate is less than 15 percent. 'These are needless deaths," Seibel said. "Any screen that detected whether you had a treatable condition before it had turned into cancer would save lives.'"

As many of you know, "an endoscope is a flexible camera that travels into the body's cavities to directly investigate the digestive tract, colon or throat. Most of today's endoscopes capture the image using a traditional approach where each part of the camera captures a different section of the image. These tools are long, flexible cords about 9 mm wide, about the width of a human fingernail. Because the cord is so wide patients must be sedated during the scan."

This is why this scanning endoscope is different. "It consists of just a single optical fiber for illumination and six fibers for collecting light, all encased in a pill. Seibel acted as the human volunteer in the first test of the UW device. He reports that it felt like swallowing a regular pill, and the tether, which is 1.4 mm wide, did not bother him." But he was probably a good patient...

How did the prototype work? "In the tested model the fiber swings 5,000 times per second, creating 15 color pictures per second. The resolution is better than 100 microns, or more than 500 lines per inch. Although conventional endoscopes produce images at higher resolution, the tethered-capsule endoscope is designed specifically for low-cost screening."

The researchers at UW seem confident that they can commercialize the technology at low cost. Let's hope they're right.

Sources: Hannah Hickey, University of Washington, January 24, 2008; and various websites

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