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Japan's New Capsule Endoscopes—
"Swimming" through Your Digestive System

Part 1

Endoscopy—Revealing the True Conditions of the Stomach and Intestines

Endoscopy has become an important tool that doctors use to discover stomach and intestinal cancers earlier than was possible before. An endoscope is a long, flexible tube that has a tiny camera and light at one end. It is inserted either via the throat or the anal canal. Once inside, the doctor maneuvers it through the digestive system or the bowels, and the camera provides video imaging of its surroundings. The video feeds are viewed by the doctor on a computer screen.

A self-propelling capsule endoscope

A self-propelling capsule endoscope. In the center of the fin on the right is the permanent magnet.

But it is very uncomfortable for patients to be lying down for a long time with the endoscope tube inserted as the doctor carries out the examination. That's why about ten years ago the "capsule endoscope" was invented. It is a tiny capsule with a built-in camera and light that can provide real-time video imaging inside the small intestine while moving through it. The capsule is 10 mm in diameter and 20 mm long, which is bigger than most medicinal capsules. But once the capsule is swallowed, both the patient and the doctor need only wait until it makes its way through the patient's digestive system. Even though the examination takes more than ten hours, it is far more comfortable for the patient.

A self-propelling capsule endoscope

A self-propelling capsule endoscope with its characteristic fin

There is, however, one big problem with conventional capsule endoscopy. Because the movement and direction of the capsule cannot be controlled, the doctor can't go back and take another look, or look more to the right or left or above, for example, if there is something that needs to be double checked. Many ways to solve this problem have been tried, and in 2011, Japanese researchers announced that they developed a capsule with directional control.

The new capsule was developed by Otsuka Naotake, professor emeritus at Ryukoku University, and his team. Now, named the "Self-Propelling Capsule Endoscope," research and development is continuing at Mu Ltd, a company established to put the new capsule endoscope into practical use.