Get Ready for Your 'Capsule Robot' Colon Cancer Check

MONDAY, May 8, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- Not looking forward to your next colonoscopy? Don't worry -- in the future, a tiny capsule less than an inch long may navigate your colon to check for cancer risk, scientists report.

Researchers at Nashville's Vanderbilt University Medical Center used magnets to guide the tethered "capsule robot" through a pig's colon.

"Not only is the capsule robot able to actively maneuver through the GI tract to perform diagnostics, it is also able to perform therapeutic maneuvers, such as biopsies of tissue or polyp removal, due to the tether -- something that other capsule devices are unable to do," lead researcher Dr. Keith Obstein explained.

His team said the magnetized capsule robot is 0.7 inches long and inserted rectally. It's then guided through the colon by using an external magnet that's attached to a robotic arm.

The capsule also has an attached tether that is much smaller in diameter than conventional endoscopes used for conoloscopies.

The researchers successfully tested the capsule robot dozens of times in the pig's colon.

Obstein's team was to present the findings Monday at the Digestive Diseases Week meeting, in Chicago.

"There's no doubt in the value of colonoscopies to keep people healthy through preventive screening for colon cancer, but many individuals still avoid this procedure, because of fear of the test itself, perceived discomfort or the risk of sedation," said Obstein, who's an associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt.

"We developed this capsule robot to make traversing the GI tract much easier, for both the clinician and patient," he explained in a meeting news release.

Besides being much smaller than an endoscope, the capsule approach has other benefits for patients, Obstein said.

"Since the external magnet pulls the capsule robot with the tether segment from the front or head of the capsule, instead of a physician pushing the colonoscope from behind as in traditional endoscopy, we're able to avoid much of the physical pressure that is placed on the patient's colon -- possibly reducing the need for sedation or pain medication," he said.

According to the researchers, human trials of the capsule robot are expected to begin at the end of 2018. Because this research was presented at a medical meeting, it should also be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Two experts in gastroenterology said the new technology might encourage more people to undergo colon cancer screening.

"Robotic technology has already been proven to show marked improvement and satisfaction in patients undergoing surgical procedures," noted Dr. Jules Garbus. He helps direct colorectal surgery at NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola, N.Y.

According to Garbus, devices like the capsule robot "would help encourage more patients to undergo lifesaving colonoscopies."

Dr. Arun Swaminath directs the inflammatory disease program at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. He said that the notion of a remote-controlled capsule reminded him of today's high-tech airplanes, where the pilot allows the plane to "fly itself."

"Will colonoscopy become the same?" he said. Possibly, he added, but "there's a way to go before truly important endpoints -- such as safety, efficiency and quality -- are ready to be brought into the equation before we have to think about the 'aviation' model of colonoscopy."

More information

The U.S. National Cancer Institute has more on colorectal cancer screening.

SOURCES: Arun Swaminath, MD, director, inflammatory bowel disease program, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Jules Garbus, MD, co-chief, colorectal surgery, NYU Winthrop Hospital, Mineola, NY; Digestive Disease Week, news release, May 8, 2017