At just a couple of centimeters long, the future of medical technology is the size of a grain of rice.
Researchers in the endoscopic department of Olympus Optical Co., based in the west Tokyo suburb of Hachioji, are developing a tiny capsule of glass and plastic that will be directed through the arteries and organs of the human body looking for signs of disease and transmitting images to doctors.
The “smart” capsule, which a patient only has to swallow, will even be able to perform small-scale surgical procedures when it comes across a trouble spot, operating with a microscopic scalpel and guided by doctors through a remote-controlled camera in its nose.
It will also be able to deliver small doses of drugs and collect tissue samples with a scoop arm that extends and retracts from the body of the instrument.
“By using a capsule that is able to travel by itself to the affected part of the body, it will be possible to diagnose, treat and cure illnesses faster and more efficiently,” said Hitoshi Mizuno, group manager of the company’s gastrointestinal products division.
“This method of treatment would minimize pain for the patient,” Mizuno said. “But our work is still in the development stage.” He was unable to say when the endoscope of the future will be available to physicians.
A joint British-Israeli team recently announced that clinical trials of a similar “gut-cam” have begun at the Royal London Hospital, but the vehicle cannot be guided and travels through the intestines uncontrolled.
Work to miniaturize each of the elements that will be needed for the Olympus capsule to work — including the tiny camera, lights to illuminate the target area and its propulsion system — is continuing, Mizuno said.
At present, Olympus controls 70 percent of the world endoscope market.
It is anticipated that the new micro-medical device will drastically reduce the need for invasive surgery and leave behind no signs of its passage.
Advances in the miniaturization of both the camera and the capsule’s medical implements will mean that in the future, some versions will be sufficiently tiny to cruise through the bloodstream.
Fulfilling that dream, however, is some ways off yet, Mizuno emphasized.
At present, the insertion of a traditional endoscope measuring a couple of centimeters in diameter requires that the patient be anesthetized, making the procedure more unpleasant.
Olympus hopes to circumvent this problem by reducing the tube that links the inserted lens to the outside — providing power, air and enabling the lens to be directed — to a strand of fiber-optic wire.
The remote-controlled capsule beaming pictures outside the body would be the natural progression from this product.
“Our first aim is to make the capsule small enough to navigate the gastrointestinal tract, the stomach and the esophagus,” Mizuno said. “But in the future, we hope to be able to insert it into a smaller opening, such as the pancreatic duct or bile duct.”
Other probes will be designed to enter the organs of the body, including the pancreas, bladder and liver.
Olympus is also working on a range of other advanced endoscopic equipment, using lasers and cutting-edge micro-machine technology, but the aim is the same.
“We want to integrate various functions into our endoscopes, which will lead to advanced diagnosis and therapy,” Mizuno said.