In what can only be seen as a weird twist of fate, Dr Berean started suffering from the symptoms of a gut condition while he was co-creating a new gas-sensing, swallowable capsule designed to improve the diagnosis and treatment of gastrointestinal conditions. His personal experience has provided him with a real insight into the importance of improving our gut health.
“I suffer from fructose malabsorption,” explains Dr Berean. “But if you talk to many gastroenterologists, they believe I don’t have fructose malabsorption based on the tests they have given me. They will say I have IBS even though I don’t have a conclusive diagnosis of that either.”
Currently, doctors use breath tests to determine the hydrogen levels in our guts. Dr Berean believes that these tests do not work for everyone. In his mind, this test also failed to reveal answers to his questions about his own gut health. “This is one of the reasons why we are looking into this field of [health].”
"They will say I have IBS even though I don’t have a conclusive diagnosis of that either.”
Earlier this week, Dr Berean co-published a paper in Nature Electronics detailing the first phase human trial results of the Australian invention: a gas-sensing capsule, tested by RMIT and Monash University researchers.
The ingestible capsule, dubbed a potential game-changer for people with gastrointestinal issues like Dr Berean, aims to detect and measure gut gases – hydrogen, carbon dioxides and oxygen – in real time. This data can be sent to a mobile phone to reveal a unique picture of what is going on in a person’s gut.
So far, tests on six healthy humans show that the vitamin pill sized is safe for consumption.
Dr Berean adds that results to-date show that -if future research trials are successful - then by 2021, we may be able to use the capsule to personalise gastrointestional diagnoses and treatments.
“Gastroenterologists and dieticians don’t have a lot of tools at hand [to specifically diagnose various gut conditions]. They go off a lot of surveys and tick boxes to understand what is wrong with people. That is not a bad thing but the more diagnostic tools we have at hand, the more efficient we can be at diagnosing gastrointestinal conditions.”
Early trials also identified a potentially new immune system in the gut.
“We found that the stomach releases oxidising chemicals to break down and beat foreign compounds that are staying in the stomach for longer than usual,” Professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, study lead and capsule co-inventor explains.
“This could represent a gastric protection system against foreign bodies. Such an immune mechanism has never been reported before.”
"The more diagnostic tools we have at hand, the more efficient we can be at diagnosing gastrointestinal conditions.”
Dr Berean hopes that better understanding the immune mechanism in the gut and observing how it works in each person – via information garnered from within a person’s body through the capsule – doctors will be able to determine what is ‘normal’ gut functioning, what is abnormal, where abnormalities start, whether therapies are working and if they aren’t, why.
The trial also showed the presence of high concentrations of oxygen in the colon, under an extremely high-fibre diet. This contradicts the old belief that the colon is always oxygen-free.
“[We found that] as soon as you start to push a lot of oxygen in the colon, you can start to kill off a lot of bacteria,” Dr Berean says.
“Whether this is a good thing for the individual or not, will all be on an individual basis. But if you have bacterial groups in the colon that aren’t working together, that have been causing problems that has led to inflammation or a disorder, then you could [prescribe] a dietary intervention that kills off a lot of these bad bacteria that aren’t helping you.
“Then you’ve replaced antibiotics. So therefore, all the problems associated with antibiotics – bacterial resistance of antibiotics – may no longer be an issue going forward into the future, as we can start being more limited in our use of antibiotics.”
The authors agree that despite their high aspirations for the capsule, further human tests are needed.
"All the problems associated with antibiotics – bacterial resistance of antibiotics – may no longer be an issue going forward into the future."
“Obviously its early days,” Dr Berean says. “More research needs to be done to determine how it will all work.
Dr Berean hopes that trials will be finished within the next two-to-three years so that the capsule will be brought to market by the new company, Atmo Bioscience, by 2021.
“Numerous people who [suffer a gastrointestinal problem] will never get a diagnosis or it will take a long time to get a proper therapeutic action that works for them. So it would be good if an Australian-made device could help Australian people.”