Massey student’s robotic gut capsule could be a game-changer
Not so long ago it would have been the stuff of sci-fi fantasies, but Massey University PhD student Muhammad Rehan is confident the pill-sized robotic capsule he has helped to create will unlock secrets of the human gut and lead to life-saving outcomes.
Millions of people globally die every year from gut-related illnesses, and many more live a life of suffering, yet diagnostic tools remain quite rudimentary.
Arriving from Pakistan as an international student in 2018, armed with a BSc and MSc in Electrical Engineering, Rehan was excited to join the Microbiotics Lab at Massey University. There he accelerated early work on a micro capsule which could be swallowed and was able to collect samples of the microbiome in specific parts of the gut.
Unlike the poop in a jar method, the capsule’s targeted sampling provides a much more detailed analysis, allowing for earlier diagnosis of killer diseases such as cancer and diabetes and easier treatment of inflammatory conditions like Crohn’s and coeliac diseases.
Early treatment of gut disease can save lives
Treating disease early reduces complications and saves lives. And with the capsule expected to be quite affordable to produce, developing countries could share in the benefits it would bring.
“It is a huge step forward. There are so many advantages and applications,” Rehan says. “The gut is still a bit of a mystery, but the micro-organisms that live there can tell us a lot about our health.”
While an endoscopy camera capsule can take images, it has limitations, and clinicians are excited by the prospect of having such a sophisticated but easy-to-use device to help with diagnosis, Rehan says.
Research project shows commercial promise
What started as a research-oriented project is showing commercial promise. And not just from doctors. Rehan has also had interest from the veterinary sector, and nutritionists keen to better understand nutritional absorption.
The next step is to hone the final details of the capsule design and apply for patents. Once he has ethical approval, he can begin testing in animals. He expects that to be within months.
Rehan is proud of what he has achieved since arriving in New Zealand with his young family three years ago. He says he could have gone to the UK or US, but chose New Zealand based on recommendations by friends already studying here, who described the research environment for international students as open and collaborative. He was also excited by the work being undertaken in microbiotics by his supervisor Ebu Avci and was keen to be involved.
Collaborative environment makes for impactful outcomes
“I’ve valued the network of like-minded people I’ve developed and know that I’ll have a supportive community to call on when I’m no longer in New Zealand,” he says. “The easy collaboration with other universities and organisations such as Callaghan Innovation and MacDiarmid Institute also makes the research and outcomes more impactful.”
Such is the life-saving potential of Rehan’s gut capsule, that he was selected to represent New Zealand last month at the International Falling Walls Lab competition in Berlin, Germany. The competition provides a platform for early-career innovators to present, in a three-minute pitch to a jury of experts from academia and business, how they might fix pressing global challenges. Rehan had to compete remotely and wasn’t the ultimate winner but says he it was a great opportunity to network and learn from other research developments going on around the world.
Rehan plans to spend next year writing his thesis before returning to Pakistan. Funded by his government to study internationally, he is conscious of the need to return home to share his skills and knowledge but has not ruled out returning to New Zealand to undertake further research in the future.