How ultrasound technology and robotics could offer safer gastrointestinal screening

A robotic colonoscopy platform that uses ultrasound could change the way gastrointestinal (GI) screening is carried out, improve patient survival rates and help healthcare providers save money.

The technology comprises a capsule containing a magnet and camera capable of sending and receiving ultrasound signals. The capsule is inserted into the body and is controlled by another magnet, which is held in a robotic arm.

Its creators say it could provide a means of efficiently and autonomously diagnosing GI diseases. Using the equipment, a medical professional is able to perform minimally invasive colonoscopy with a camera and ultrasound transducers.

Using ultrasound could allow rapid diagnosis of diseases in their early stages, reducing waiting times and improving patient outcomes. Patient quality of life and cancer survival rates could also improve.

Using ultrasound could allow rapid diagnosis of diseases in their early stages, reducing waiting times and improving patient outcomes.

The technology has been developed by Professor Pietro Valdastri and colleagues as part of a collaborative, multidisciplinary project with engineers, biologists and clinicians.

The research has been carried out as the result of an EPSRC-funded Sonopill programme grant, which also includes researchers from the University of Glasgow, the University of Dundee, and Heriot-Watt University.

Robotic colonoscopy

From left to right: University of Leeds researchers Simone Calò, Joseph Norton, and Professor Pietro Valdastri demonstrating the robotically assisted magnetic colonoscopy device

Safer detection of gastrointestinal diseases

Safely performing a complete colonoscopy requires a great degree of technical skill and experience. During a conventional colonoscopy, inserting the device into the body and moving it through the colon can stretch the surrounding tissue and cause serious discomfort to the patient. Excessive force and the out-dated, semi-rigid design of the device can even result in piercing of the bowel wall.

The ultrasound technology used in the Sonopill programme has been integrated into a platform developed by Professor Valdastri and his team. This robotic technology enables autonomous movement of the capsule inside the body, to minimise trauma to the tissue, and improve diagnostic accuracy thanks to the camera.

It is easier to operate than existing systems, meaning the most experienced surgeons can use their time more effectively. Anaesthesiologists, sedation monitors and other specialised facilities are also not required, meaning they can be deployed elsewhere.

Irritable Bowell Disease (IBD) patients already benefit greatly from capsule endoscopy, particularly in the diagnosis of Crohn’s disease in children and young adults. Now, thanks to this technology, capsule endoscopy may be extended to colonoscopy.

The new technology has augmented functionality with the inclusion of ultrasound transducers. It encompasses treatment for all gastrointestinal patients but is of particular benefit to IBD patients, who typically require more frequent screening.

Magnetic colonoscopy platform

The magnetic colonoscopy platform is housed within STORM Lab UK in the School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, University of Leeds

Better healthcare economics

Sonopill aims to develop a ‘collection’ of capsules for diagnosing diseases anywhere in the gastrointestinal tract, using a number of different sensing technologies. Using the equipment, a medical professional is able to perform minimally invasive diagnosis of diseases anywhere in the GI tract using the most appropriate sensing modality.

Professor Valdastri said: “By trialling this robotic, ultrasound technology, we are allowing minimally invasive techniques used in endoscopy to be applied not only to colonoscopy but to detect of a whole range of gastrointestinal diseases.

“Patient quality of life could be vastly improved and death rates reduced, and the economic knock-on effect experienced by the healthcare system could be huge.”

...the economic knock-on effect experienced by the healthcare system could be huge.

At present, Professor Valdastri and his team are developing the platform for human clinical trials and comparing it to standard colonoscopy equipment.

Euroscience Open Forum

Professor Valdastri’s team, which includes Postdoctoral Researchers Joseph Norton and James Martin, presented their work at the Euroscience Open Forum in Toulouse. They represented UK research and the EPSRC, which also funded their participation in the forum.

Rachael McPhillips from the University of Glasgow presented alongside University of Leeds researchers at the forum.

Rebecca Endean, UKRI’s Director of Strategy commented on the excellence of the Unversity of Leeds presentation. EU Commissioner for Research Science and Innovation Carlos Moedas also visited the stand.

Further information

ESOF (EuroScience Open Forum) is the largest interdisciplinary science meeting in Europe; it is dedicated to scientific research and innovation.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences.