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MIT pill inflates in your gut so you can’t digest it. Here’s why that’s awesome

Jell-O-like, expanding pill

Ever eat a meal that’s way too big and, afterward, feel like the food is continuing to expand inside your stomach? That’s kind of what researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed with a new ingestible pill that is able to rapidly blow up into a soft hydrogel object the size of a ping-pong ball after it’s been consumed. Once inflated, it can then be used to track the body’s core temperature — and one day perhaps ulcers, cancers, and other gastrointestinal conditions — for up to one month. It could even potentially help people lose weight where needed.

“The hydrogel device can stay in the stomach for a long time and maintain its softness and integrity,” Xinyue Liu, one of the researchers who worked on the project, told Digital Trends. “It is also able to carry cargoes including drug formulations, mini camera, and wireless sensors. The industries that this smart-hydrogel-pill technology may impact include long-term in-body physiological monitoring and diagnosis, prolonged drug delivery, [and] bariatric [and] metabolic interventions, where the hydrogel balls can fill the stomach and make people feel full and eat less.”

The smart pill is made using two hydrogel materials. One contains absorbent particles called sodium polyacrylate, while the other — composed of a grid of crystalline chains — stops it from tearing apart when it expands in the stomach. The pill is impressively durable and capable of remaining intact inside the stomach throughout the period it’s inside someone. Should the patient at any point need to ditch it, they can quickly remove it by drinking a calcium solution, causing the capsule to quickly return to its original size and pass safely out of the body through the digestive system.

“We have [so far] demonstrated the efficacy of the ingestible hydrogel device in large animals,” Liu said. “It is capable of one month [of] continuous measurement of gastric temperature in a pig model. In the next step, we will validate the efficacy and safety of the technique in other animals, such as [a] dog and human. We also have high interest in adapting this highly swellable hydrogel device for obesity control and nutritional modulation.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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