Skip to navigationSkip to content
x-ray
AP Photo/Frank C. Curtin
We’ve come a long way.
INSIDE LOOKING OUT

Scientists are developing an x-ray pill you can swallow

Mike Murphy
By Mike Murphy

Technology editor

Going to the doctor is rarely a pleasant experience. Beyond the sterile atmosphere and high prices (at least in the US), there’s the poking, the prodding, the injecting, and the inserting. According to the American Cancer Society, everyone over the age of 50 should get a colonoscopy to be screened for colorectal cancer. But many shy away from the procedure that involves sticking a camera up somewhere things don’t often go. However, a new product being developed might make checking for colon cancer as easy as swallowing a pill.

Check Cap, led by medical engineer Yoav Kimchy, has developed a pill that contains a small sensor that works like an X-ray machine, or the LIDAR detection system in Google’s self-driving cars. A patient swallows the pill and when it gets to the colon, it emits a signal to determine how far it is from the colon wall. The signal is emitted in every direction, allowing the pill to map the entire inside of the colon. It sends the data to a wireless patch the patient slaps on their skin, which tracks the pill’s movement through their body. According to Check Cap, it’s about as harmful to the body as two airport body scans or one chest X-ray.

“You don’t see much inside murky water.”

The pill is disposable and doesn’t need to be retrieved once it’s done its job. The patient then gives the patch to their doctor, and in 10 minutes, they’ll have a full 3D rendering of the patient’s colon. Doctors don’t have to sit through footage of a camera snaking its way through someone’s colon—instead they can check the 3D model for irregularities as they would a CT scan. Kimchy told Quartz it’s much easier for doctors to use the map than try to, quite literally, sift through the junk: ”You don’t see much inside murky water,” Kimchy said.

Kimchy has been working on this technology for over a decade. He said his grandmother died of colon cancer at 48, and he still struggled to convince his father to go for a colonoscopy because of the awkwardness of the procedure, and the less-than-enjoyable preparation process.

The World Health Organization says roughly 700,000 people worldwide die from colorectal cancer each year. “It was obvious this was a problem that needed solving in a different way,” Kimchy said. With Check Cap, the hardest part is swallowing the one-inch pill: The only preparation required is to drink a solution that increases the contrast in the colon before swallowing the pill.

Check Cap’s pill is currently in a clinical trial in Europe. If all goes according to plan, the company will put the pill on the market next year. Kimchy said he hopes to start trials with the US Food and Drug Administration in the next 18 months. The pill is also expected to cost less than a typical colonoscopy, which Kimchy says ranges from $800 to $2,000 in the US.

The technology is based on a new type of microchip from EPC that uses gallium nitride instead of the traditional silicon. CEO Alex Lidow told Quartz that his company’s chips can withstand the high voltage needed by the sensors inside the Check Cap. As the technology gets smaller and more powerful, it could one day be used to scan even narrower parts of the body, like blood vessels. ”Gallium nitride allows for ultra-miniaturization,” Lidow said, “and it’s finding its way into smaller things.”

Subscribe to the Daily Brief, our morning email with news and insights you need to understand our changing world.