The Intestinal Submarine

Olympus unveils the first camera in a pill to diagnose and treat disease as it navigates the gut

by Courtesy Olympus Medical Systems

Courtesy Olympus Medical Systems

Today the best tool for spotting trouble lurking in the small intestine is the so-called camera pill. Swallow the capsule, which is about the size of a big jellybean, and it slips passively through the gastrointestinal tract, snapping pictures at random along the way. The device beats the alternative--a long fiber-optic cable with a camera at the end that snakes down your throat--but it´s hardly the miniaturized submarine of the1966 sci-fi flick Fantastic Voyage that swims through the body, searching for and destroying blood clots.

That´s where Olympus Medical Systems in Tokyo comes in. The company is developing a sort of Swiss Army knife for gastrointestinal doctors: a remote-controlled capsule equipped with a high-speed camera, an ultrasound scanner, a suction device to collect suspicious-looking cells, and a balloon that squirts medication onto tumors or infections.

The researchers, who are still miniaturizing the propulsion and power systems, expect the pill to be ready for action within the next five years. In the meantime, Olympus will unveil a more traditional (read: slightly less fantastic) version in the next few months. Like other gut cams, the one-inch pill, called the Olympus Capsule Endoscope, moves through the digestive tract by natural muscle contractions. But with its high-resolution camera, it will provide unprecedented picture-taking capabilities.