Mass General and MIT Are Working to Make Ingesting Medical Devices Safer

They developed a gel that could allow devices to safely stay in the stomach for days, weeks, or months.

Massachusetts General Hospital and MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research are working on a polymer gel that could allow swallowed medical devices or capsules to safely act over the course of days, weeks, or even months.

Improving slow-release safety could open the door for devices that control hunger in obese patients, diagnose gastrointestinal issues, extend the effects of drugs, and more, according to a joint report from the institutions. Long-term devices have not traditionally been an option due to feared intestinal damage—Mass General and MIT’s gel, however, can withstand stomach acid, but breaks down in the small intestine, making it much safer for long-term ingestion. Giovanni Traverso, a researcher from the Koch Institute, said in a statement that the advance could cut down on device-caused medical emergencies:

“One of the issues with any device in the GI tract is that there’s the potential for an obstruction, which is a medical emergency potentially requiring surgical intervention,” says Koch Institute research affiliate Giovanni Traverso, also a gastroenterologist at MGH and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. “A material like this represents a real advance because it is both safe and stable in the stomach environment.”

The researchers also found a way to create an elastic polymer that could be folded down small enough to fit inside a capsule, eliminating traditional challenges around the size of consumable medical devices. In testing their design on pigs, the researchers found that, after the animals swallowed a small capsule, the device expanded back to its original size in only 15 minutes, remained in the stomach for a week, and then safely cleared the intestinal tract.

MIT is currently negotiating with biotechnology firm Lyndra to license the technology for use in humans.