The next time a patient is asked to swallow an entire camera to help diagnose gastrointestinal problems, he or she should not be surprised. New technology has GI patients doing just that. Such patients are familiar with endoscopic examinations, which involve swallowing a tiny camera attached to snake-like tubes. Now, by swallowing a pill housing the technology similar to a digital camera, doctors have the ability to see more than 50,000 images of the middle and lower intestines, only visible before via a cup of barium and X-rays.

The pill, referred to as the M2A Capsule Endoscopy, is no larger than a multivitamin and is taken with a small sip of water.

The white capsule encasing the camera transmits its pictures on a radio frequency to a recording device, worn on a belt around the patient’s waist, which captures the images. After eight hours, during which the pill runs its course and the images have been recorded, the belt is returned to the doctor for analysis and the one-time-use pill simply passes through the patient.

Since the beginning of the year, University of Iowa patients have swallowed the pill in hopes of diagnosing intestinal difficulties. After the Food and Drug Administration approved the drug in 2001, the technology increased in popularity and use throughout the country.

Before the M2A Capsule Endoscopy, doctors used cameras on elongated flexible tubes to examine upper parts of the digestive system and also the colon. However, this type of endoscopy was unable to examine 20 feet of the small intestine. To study this area, doctors asked patients to swallow barium and proceeded to X-ray the area, searching for trouble spots. Mistrust surrounded this method from some who thought it unreliable.

The capsule provides a way to see what otherwise would be a very difficult area to examine.

“This technology, the capsule endoscopy … is a major step in being able to do less invasive procedures that gain immense knowledge. It’s a much easier way for the patient to give information about their gastrointestinal tract,” said Hannah Carey, a University of Wisconsin comparative biosciences professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine.

Carey, also a gastrointestinal physiologist and researcher, says once patients take the pill, they are free to go about their daily routines while the camera moving through their GI tract transmits a video that will later be examined by their doctor.

Successful diagnoses of ailments such as unexplained bleeding, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease and intestinal tumors have already occurred using the technology. It has proven exceptionally helpful on patients who show clear signs of intestinal bleeding but in whose cases conventional methods have turned up no cause.

At the University of Iowa, where the pill has been used extensively for two years, a 60 to 70 percent success rate has been achieved; practically double the success rate of other methods.

“As opposed to endoscopic procedures that often involved discomfort, even sedation, the capsule provides a revolutionary way using less invasive diagnostic information and procedures to explore the GI tract,” Carey said.