Colon cancer is a societal scourge, killing roughly 700,000 people each year. Most cases start as small, benign clumps of cells; if caught early, it can potentially be life-saving which is why screening are recommended for anyone over the age of 50. The problem with regular screenings,, though, is that they aren't exactly a pleasant experience—as you might imagine for a cancer that occurs in that part of the body.
Screenings involve either having a colonoscopy (during which physician sticks a thin, flexible tube up your arse to inspect your innards) or collecting your poop multiple times to have it analyzed for trace amounts of blood. Neither option sounds particularly appealing, so a start-up called Cap Check has come up with a third option that's much easier to swallow: a pill-shaped x-ray device that's taken orally.
Like more invasive screening methods, Cap Check is meant to detect the presence of abnormal growths and lesions, the types of things that signal to doctors that something is wrong. But it does it using tiny beams of x-rays. (Yes, in order to have your colon Cap Checked, you need to swallow a device that's emitting low levels of radiation, about two airport body-scans worth, according to the company.)
The pill comes equipped with tiny sensors that detect the time it takes for those beams to bounce off your intestines and back to the device. It's a little bit like SONAR technology used by submarines, or the LIDAR sensors that help Google's robotic cars sense the world around them, except SONAR uses sound and LIDAR uses lasers.
With this x-ray vision, the Cap Check capsule, which is about the size of a large multivitamin pill, surveys your colon continuously as it travels through your bowels, gathering rough images and location data as it goes. Think about it a little bit like an Instagram for your colon, but way more beneficial.
The information it collects is stored on a patch the patient wears. When you poop out Cap Check, the patch, which keeps tabs on the pill's whereabouts inside you, notifies you through sound that it's time to peel the patch off and take it to the doc for analysis.
She downloads all that information into her computer, and software uses it to reconstruct your colon digitally, creating a kind of topographical map of your innards. Any abnormalities show up as bumps or lesions on an otherwise smooth surface, as below. And these are location-tagged so that when a doctor wants to examine them, she knows exactly where to go.
Cap Check isn't yet available in the U.S. Right now, it's going through clinical trials in Europe. CEO Bill Densel estimates that it'll make its way Stateside sometime in 2016. Before it hits the market, it'll need approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the agency that regulates medical devices. The FDA will want to make sure that the thing is safe—after all, you are ingesting a little bit of radiation—and that it's at least as good, if not better, at detecting problems than methods already in use. Densel estimates the device will cost about $600, cheaper than a colonoscopy, which can run between $1,000 and $3,000.
In the meantime, the company is already "creating an atlas of images of multiple types of polyps…that can be used as reference when [physicians are] looking at a particular patient's scan," said Densel. That could help doctors get a better understanding of the types of irregularities that arise and which ones end up causing cancer.
For now, Cap Check is relying on doctors' expertise to make the final call, but Densel told me that they're looking into using image-recognition software to help analyze all the data Cap Check collects. He didn't specify when that would happen, but image recognition is increasingly being used in medicine to identify cancer and heart disease. So, it makes sense that Cap Check would go in that direction as well.
Cap Check isn't the only entity trying to use in-body sensors to assess your health. A few months back, a group of scientists thought up a pill that would measure your gas. Others want to send in micro-robots that would be able to detect cancerous cells floating around in your bloodstream in real-time.
Technology has already mapped the world. Your body, it seems, is next.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.