Tiny Video Camera Offers Inside View of Human Body

Doctors can now look deep inside the human body with a camera that patients swallow. A capsule that contains a tiny video camera, light source, TV transmitter and a battery can send images of the inside of the intestines for several hours. Dr. Sydney Spiesel, who teaches at Yale Medical school and writes for the online magazine Slate, talks with Madeleine Brand.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR News it's DAY TO DAY. The wonders of modern medicine often do cost us a little something in personal dignity. Think of this word: colonoscopy. If you haven't had the occasion to sample the procedure yet you'll know what I mean when you get a little older. Well, now there's another development called wireless capsule endoscopes. Dr. Sydney Spiesel, medical columnist for the online magazine Slate, says these work better than the periscope-like cameras that are usually used to examine the intestines. Dr. Spiesel spoke earlier with my colleague Madeleine Brand.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Tell us about this new technology. Why is it so thrilling?

Dr. SYDNEY SPIESEL (Medical Columnist, Slate): This new technology, frankly, knocks me out. Imagine something that is, looks like and is about the same shape as and the same size as a large vitamin capsule. And believe it or not, it contains a video camera, four incredibly tiny little teensy light sources, a television transmitter and a battery. And as soon as the patient swallows it, it gets activated and the disposable camera starts to transmit images of the inside of the intestines. About two images a second.

And the patient wears a kind of pack on their belt that records all of this. As it drifts south through the patient it just keeps running until the battery runs out, which is about eight hours later, which in most patients it's traveled the full length of the small intestine.

BRAND: And then out it comes?

Dr. SPIESEL: Well, we certainly hope so. Most of the time it comes out. Occasionally, in patients who have strictures, tightenings of the intestine as a result of illness, it, there have been some times when it's gotten stuck. Although in the studies that were done, well, it always sort of either washed out or it could be retrieved very easily.

BRAND: Well, why would you need to be rooting around in someone's intestines? What are you looking for?

Dr. SPIESEL: Well, you're looking for diseases that affect the inside of the intestine. Sometimes these are sort of obvious. You might have a patient who has some gastrointestinal bleeding, which might be a sign of a polyp or it might be a sign of inflammation of the lining of the bowel. It could be sign even of a tumor. And it turns out that these swallowed capsules are one the best ways of identifying bleeding sites.

But also, there's a disease called Crohn's Disease, which causes a lot of misery. It's really a very difficult disease in a lot of ways. People are uncomfortable. They often have a lot of diarrhea and abdominal pain. And it turns out that the capsule method is much more sensitive as a way of diagnosing Crohn's Disease than the enterascopes, that is the visual things that doctors might pass up or down through a patient, in this case pass up through a patient.

BRAND: And Syd, I understand there was a recent study in Berlin that compared this new high tech method of diagnosing Crohn's Disease with the regular method. And how did the wireless high tech method measure up?

Dr. SPIESEL: Well, the high tech method turned out to be much better than the previous methods that involved either looking or doing x-rays. This group in Berlin at Humboldt University found that they were able to diagnose the disease 35 percent more frequently than the best results attained by the best methods, the methods that were formerly thought to be sort of the gold standard methods. So it clearly is much better.

It also identified the disease higher up in the small intestine than anyone expected it would be, which might change our strategy about how to treat the disease.

BRAND: Expert opinion from Dr. Sydney Spiesel. He's a Yale Medical Professor and a columnist for Slate.com. Thank you, Syd.

Dr. SPIESEL: Thank you.

CHADWICK: And that interview by my colleague Madeleine Brand.

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