The next-gen 'smart pill' for cancer detection

A team led by University of Saskatchewan (USask) researcher Dr. Khan Wahid (PhD) has been awarded $250,000 from the federal New Frontiers in Research Fund to create a new pill-sized capsule that uses artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled sensing to diagnose gastrointestinal cancers and bleeding earlier and more precisely than is currently possible.

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Dr. Khan Wahid (PhD) is a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the USask College of Engineering.
Source: University of Saskatchewan

Now in prototype development, SmartCap is a new generation diagnostic tool that addresses shortcomings of the 20-year-old wireless capsule endoscopy technology currently used to detect gastrointestinal malignancies and hemorrhages. SmartCap is able to generate location-specific data on tumours and bleeding that results in greater diagnostic accuracy.

With a unique tracking system developed by Wahid’s team, doctors will be able to precisely trace the entire intestinal voyage of the smart capsule due to tiny wireless “intelligent” biosensors that detect and analyze targeted biomarkers (disease indicators) and communicate with external devices such as a computer. “This new tool could double gastrointestinal cancer survival rates worldwide,” said Wahid, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the USask College of Engineering. “This is the first fully traceable ‘smart’ pill for targeted endoscopy (a non-surgical way to look inside the body) that can be personalized to the patient.”

The World Health Organization estimates there were 4.6 million new cases of gastrointestinal cancers and 3.3 million related deaths in 2018. About two-thirds of these cancers are detected at an advanced stage, but with earlier diagnoses and treatment, the survival rate of patients almost doubles to 83 per cent. “The New Frontiers in Research program brings disciplines together in non-traditional ways to explore new directions that push the boundaries of research and have potential for significant impact,” said USask Vice-President Research Karen Chad. “Under professor Wahid’s leadership, this exciting biomedical engineering project for improved cancer diagnosis taps into the innovative and wide-ranging expertise of our talented researchers, enhancing the contribution we are making to tackle major health challenges globally.”

While wireless capsule technology using tiny cameras are currently the only option for capturing images inside the three- to 10-metre-long small intestine, current devices cannot be tracked in the gut precisely, making it impossible for doctors to pinpoint the site of a cancer, polyp, or hemorrhage. Involuntary movements of the small intestine make it further difficult to determine the capsule’s progress. “It’s like trying to track something in the dark with no reference point, or where the reference points themselves are constantly moving,” said Wahid. “That’s why there has been no change to the hardware and localization side of wireless capsule technology in 20 years, even though image quality, wireless transmission, diagnostic tools, and software have all improved.”

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