Every now and then some awesome technology gets tested in the medical arena. Recently, some Japanese scientists developed a small capsule-about three inches long and a half a inch wide, which is inserted through the rectum.  From there, the capsule, which is capable of taking remarkably clear pictures, is guided upwards through the entire large colon.  How? Magnets are used to direct the little device upwards, against peristalsis and at times against gravity.

Capsule endoscopy already exists and is used at times to diagnose possible bowel abnormalities such as polyps, which can be risk markers for colon cancer, tumors and outpocketings of the colon known as diverticulae. Stomach ulcers and inflammation can also be seen. The capsule is swallowed and in a day or two traverses the entire gut. The gastroenterologist can then decide whether further studies-for example endoscopy are needed and if so, where the pathology might be.

These devices cannot yet biopsy lesions.  However, I suspect that with technological advances one day there will be the capability of obtaining tissue specimens and even avoiding endoscopy altogether. That day is not yet here.  What this means is that for those of us over 50, regular colonoscopy and or sigmoidoscopy are still recommended.  These exams have been shown without a doubt to catch and treat precancers and early cancers, which is a good thing.

Why would one want to develop a device that starts from the rectum rather than from your mouth? If you are simply interested in the large rather than the small intestine, this would save time and possibly money (fewer pictures to analyze) and perhaps allow for greater resolution as well.

Many moons ago, when watching Dr. McCoy “scan” a shipmate’s body with a handheld device, I wondered whether such a device could really ever exist. I now know that not only do such devices already exist, there are many more on the horizon…