Diagnosing stomach cancer could soon be as easy as swallowing a pill. In a new study, researchers at Chongqing University in China unveil a new type of ingestible capsule capable of detecting chemical precursors of a gastric tumor. The findings stand to improve prognoses worldwide by allowing oncologists to catch the disease at a very early stage.

For some time, gastroenterologists and other physicians specializing in the digestive system have relied on a rather mind-blowing diagnostic strategy called capsule endoscopy. In the procedure, a tiny, pill-sized camera is ingested by the patient and monitored by a wireless receiver. As the capsule travels through the patient’s body, the camera feeds continuous information about biological and chemical signatures to the physician. The examination ends when the patient expels the pill the natural way. The new study, which is published in the International Journal of Biomedical Engineering and Technology, shows how this device can be modified to detect so-called occult bleeding (OB) — tiny quantities of blood associated with the earliest stages of stomach cancer.

The new diagnostic pill, which is encased in a non-toxic and acid-safe polycarbonate shell, carries its own power supply, transmitter, and a sensor with a detection limit of six micrograms per liter of fluid. According to the study authors, the new technique represents a significant step towards more efficient screening protocols for gastric cancers. “Subjects or doctors could discriminate whether OB existed by observing the external device,” the researchers wrote in their study. “With simplicity and reliability, this system provides a new idea for the screening of early stage gastric cancer.”

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), gastric cancer affects about 21,000 and kills about 10,000 Americans each year. Two-thirds of tumors develop in individuals above the age of 65. Risk factors include smoking, high sodium consumption, previous stomach inflammations, and a family history of cancer. At the moment, it is exceedingly hard to diagnose gastric cancer early, as symptoms typically don’t appear until the tumor’s advanced stages. When symptoms do appear, they usually include vomiting, unexplained weight loss, blood in stool, jaundice, and trouble swallowing.

The current study continues the search for new biomarkers indicative of elusive cancers like tumors of the pancreas, colon, and stomach. In a previous paper entitled “Novel Methylation Biomarker Panel for the Early Detection of Pancreatic Cancer,” a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University showed how a simple blood test may reveal epigenetic alterations associated with the early stages of pancreatic cancer. Similarly, a study from the Houston Methodist Research University suggests that other signatures may indicate the presence of nascent breast cancer.

Source: Hongying Liu; Panpan Qiao; Xueli Wu; Lan Zhu; Xitian Pi; Xiaolin Zheng. Preliminary study of an automatic detection capsule system for gastric occult blood. Int. J. of Biomedical Engineering and Technology, 2013 Vol.13, No.2, pp.105 - 116