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"Gutsy Move" -- The Discovery Files

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MIT engineers have designed an ingestible, Jell-O-like pill that, upon reaching the stomach, quickly swells to the size of a ping-pong ball. The soft, squishy device -- big enough to stay in the stomach for an extended period of time -- could potentially track ulcers, cancers and other gastrointestinal conditions over the long term.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

The incredible ingestible.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

Go with your gut. How about go to your gut? There's a new monitoring device being developed at MIT that's easy to (Sound effect: gulp) swallow and has real staying power (Sound effect: stomach churning) in the harsh, acidic, churning world that is your tummy. (Sound effect: tymp!) Pills containing sensors to record conditions from inside our digestive systems aren't new. Trouble is, they only stay in the stomach a couple of days, or are made from plastics and metals much stiffer than the gastrointestinal tract.

The MIT team used soft hydrogels that feel like Jell-O. Once the pill -- containing sensors reaches the stomach, (Sound effect: slide whistle up) it speedily soaks up liquid and swells to the size of a ping-pong ball (Sound effect: ping pong ball bounce) -- too big to make its way out. The rapid swelling (Sound effect: undersea sounds) is inspired by the pufferfish -- that quickly sucks in water and puffs up as a defense mechanism. A second gel provides a robust protective shell to keep the device from breaking apart. To remove the pill, a patient simply drinks a calcium solution, it shrinks (Sound effect: slide whistle down) back down and is passed out through the body.

The pill might eventually be used to monitor temperature, pH or signs of certain bacteria or viruses for about a month. It might carry tiny cameras to keep tabs on ulcers or tumors. And could even be a more comfortable alternative to a gastric balloon for weight loss.

(Sound effect: whimsical) A gel with a shell that swells and tells, to keep our bellies well.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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