The afflictions of the digestive system are some of the most common, and often most mysterious, problems to diagnose. The large and small intestines squirm an average of nearly 30 feet through the human body, and when something goes wrong, doctors often have to rely on patients’ external symptoms to try and solve the problem.
But what if they could use a special kind of juice to light up the dark unknowns of the colon instead? A new paper published in Nature Nanotechnology suggests that drinking a colorful cocktail of nanoparticles 10,000 times smaller than a human hair could highlight inflamed areas of the digestive tract.
In order to get a better look at what’s going on inside the body, gastroenterologists sometimes ask that patients swallow a chalky kind of substance called barium sulfate to highlight the gut in X-rays. But according to State University of New York-Buffalo researcher Jonathan Lovell, barium sulfate can be clunky, imprecise, and doesn’t allow for real-time imaging. A "nanojuice," on the other hand, could coat intestinal walls so finely that it would allow doctors to see how the digestive tract actually moves by ultrasound. Instead of a grainy, still image, think of nanojuice as the stuff that could enable some Fantastic Voyage live TV.
"We’re still trying to advance the technology to areas that are highly inflamed, or help the doctor diagnose the disease unambiguously," Lovell explains. "The idea would be that if somebody’s suspected of a motility disorder, a patient would just go into the doctor’s office—and the good thing about this imaging technology is it doesn’t rely on an expensive MRI scanner and it’s non-toxic—drink the nanojuice, wait 10 minutes, the doctor would place and ultrasound probe, and see exactly where the nanojuice is going."
In order to test the pilot nanojuices, Lovell and his colleagues had to do some pretty terrible things to mice. In addition to feeding the mice a lot of nanojuice, flipping them on their backs, and giving them ultrasounds, the researchers also created surgical obstructions in the mice’s guts and watched to see where the nanojuice went.
The results, though, were encouraging, Lovell says. Because researchers bound the nanoparticles to a type of emulsifier sometimes used in cosmetics, the nanoparticles weren’t absorbed into the bloodstream, and the "contrast looked excellent."
Human trials are the next step. And one day, Lovell hopes that nanojuice could get even smarter and more specific. "We want to try to make different colors of nanojuice bind to different states of disease in the intestine—like celiac or Crohn’s disease," he notes.