Boston-based Tufts University has developed a 3D printed pill that samples bacteria found in the gut.  Known as the microbiome, the bacteria would pass through the gastrointestinal tract (GI) and would affect health conditions.

The 3D printed pill represents the first non-invasive diagnostic tool capable of providing a profile of microbiome populations throughout the entire GI tract, according to the researchers.

Current methods of sampling the microbiome include an analysis of fecal DNA and metabolites, but this approach provides little information of the environment upstream of the distal colon, where bacterial species can vary significantly.

“We are learning quite a lot about the role of gut microbiome in health and disease. However, we know very little about its biogeography,” said Sameer Sonkusale, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tufts University’s School of Engineering and corresponding author of the study. “The pill will improve our understanding of the role of spatial distribution in the microbiome profile to advance novel treatments and therapies for a number of diseases and conditions.”

The pill is more sophisticated than just a sponge. It is manufactured in a 3D printer with microfluidic channels that can sample different stages of the GI tract. The surface of the pill is covered with a pH sensitive coating, so that it does not absorb any samples until it enters the small intestine (bypassing the stomach) where the coating dissolves.

A semi-permeable membrane separates two chambers in the pill – one containing helical channels that take up the bacteria and the other containing a calcium salt-filled chamber. The salt chamber helps create an osmotic flow across the membrane which pulls the bacteria into the helical channels. A small magnet in the pill enables one to hold it at certain locations in the gut for more spatially targeted sampling using a magnet outside the body. A fluorescent dye in the salt chamber helps locate the pill after it exits the GI tract.

“The design of this device makes it incredibly easy to use, posing little risk to the subject, yet providing so much information,” said Giovanni Widmer, professor of infectious diseases and global health in Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

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