Robotic endoscope pioneered by Hong Kong scientists offers radical treatment

Device can examine small intestine far better and release nanorobots to deliver drugs or collect samples

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 March, 2017, 7:10pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 March, 2017, 10:29pm

An endoscope jointly invented by scientists at Chinese University will go deeper into the body, slashing the time it takes for a check-up and allowing more precise treatment, with nanorobots delivering drugs or collecting samples.

The 10mm-wide instrument can examine the entire small intestine, which is around five metres long, within 30 minutes. A conventional balloon enteroscopy takes an hour and covers only 80 per cent of the organ.

Watch: how the technology works

The researchers, who developed the technology with Swiss university ETH Zurich, say it could be tested on patients within three years.

“It will allow us to go deep into the body with minimal pain and discomfort for patients. The nanorobotic device could also help diagnose and treat diseases better,” said Professor Bradley Nelson, head of the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at ETH Zurich.

The endoscope has a magnetic tip at the end of a tube and enters through the mouth. It can be guided freely inside the body under magnetic force outside the body. Nelson said similar technology had already been tested on heart patients in Switzerland.

Nanorobots could be released inside the small intestine to perform further functions.

We hope to make use of the nanorobots to perform biopsies or inject drugs
Professor Philip Chiu Wai-yan, Chinese University

Professor Philip Chiu Wai-yan, director of Chinese University’s Chow Yuk Ho Technology Centre for Innovative Medicine, said: “We hope to make use of the nanorobots to perform biopsies or inject drugs.”

Chiu said a thorough check-up of the small intestine with current technology was difficult.

For doctors using a capsule endoscope, in which patients swallow a pill-sized camera, the direction or movement of the camera cannot be controlled, it is not possible to collect tissue samples and they are unable to carry out treatment.

The problem with the balloon enteroscopy, which was around 15mm wide, is that patients have to be deeply sedated or undergo general anaesthesia, and the pushing and pulling inside the intestine is painful.

Professor Joseph Sung Jao-yiu, Chinese University’s vice-chancellor and an expert in gastroenterology, said the technology could help in treating problems of the small intestine such as unknown bleeding or Crohn’s disease, which were hard to diagnose.

“We know some patients have bleeding in their small intestines but we cannot locate the source. Even if we can identify the bleeding spot, we cannot heal as it is deep inside,” Sung said.

“Application of this new technology could be wide and benefit more people.”

Chiu said that while the university performed small intestine endoscopies on about 50 to 60 patients a year, he believed other parts of the gastrointestinal system could also benefit from the technology.

It will now be tested on animals and put into clinical study within three years.