We’re about to string together a bunch of strange sentences together, so take a deep breath and start reading slowly.
Scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston have been working on something exceptionally weird and wonderful lately. They’ve been interested in finding a way to fix gastrointestinal issues in people, specifically by regulating the hormones that are released in the gut. So thanks to some inspiration from the way lizard skin functions, they designed an artificial capsule that you’re supposed to ingest— which then begins to use electronic stimulation in the stomach to safely modulate gastrointestinal hormone levels to control hunger.
And according to some new tests in pigs, the capsule works.
“Our lab strives to develop systems that will make it easier and more accessible for patients to receive therapies,” Giovanni Traverso, a gastroenterologist at Brigham who co-authored a new study reporting the findings in Science Robotics, said in a press release. “This is an exciting proof-of-concept study and a feat of fundamental research and engineering demonstrating the potential of ingestible electroceuticals.”
The ingestible capsule works off a system called fluid-wicking capsule for active stimulation and hormone modulation, or FLASH. The idea behind FLASH is to treat gastrointestinal, neuropsychiatric, and metabolic disorders in the body with electrical stimulation. And the new findings are part of a larger line of work to make this biomedical technology feasible for real human patients.
The new study hinges around the modification of gherlin, which works to regulate hunger. Previous studies showed that patents with gastroparesis, a disorder in which food does not move well from the stomach to the small intestine, showed improvement when they had a gastric pacemaker installed. The pacemakers induced electrical stimulation that seems to foster better intestinal motility, but the reasons why were unclear.
Traverso and his team thought the electrical stimulation was perhaps creating effects on hormone modulation. They ended up learning this was true—stimulation supported increased release of gherlin, which in turn increases hunger and helps improve food movement throughout the intestines.
So they designed the new FLASH capsule as something that could be swallowed, enter the stomach, emit electrical pulses accordingly, and then be excreted.
Perhaps the most novel part about the FLASH capsule is its ability to wick away fluid so that it can maintain contact with stomach tissue and fire off its electrical pulses effectively. And that’s where the lizard skin inspiration comes in. The Australian lizard Moloch horridus is known to have a fluid-wicking skin that can absorb water in especially arid habitats. The FLASH capsule’s surface is basically designed to emulate this feature.
In trials with pigs, FLASH capsule was found to be effective in increasing gherlin production. Traverso and his team are pretty hopeful the same can occur in humans, and they are already moving forward to plans to test in human subjects. They are also interested in learning exactly how they can use FLASH to treat specific disorders and diseases arising as a result of dysfunctional hunger and food intake.
“The potential to modulate hormones using ingestible electroceuticals is potentially transformative because it does not require new drugs,” said Traverso. “Instead, it works alongside our physiological systems for the benefit of the person.”