New capsule dives deep into your digestive system to study microorganisms

A group of researchers from UC Davies are making a significant pathway in furthering human gut microbiome studies.
Sejal Sharma

Design Cells/iStock  

The human intestinal tract is home to a vast majority of microorganisms residing in our bodies. Humans depend on these microorganisms for food digestion, protection against pathogens, and immune system regulation, among other critical functions.

How these microorganisms interact in the gut is usually studied by assessing the human stool due to difficulties in sampling the intestinal tract.

Making a significant pathway in furthering human gut microbiome studies, a group of researchers at UC Davis have developed a capsule that can literally deep dive into our digestive system and collect important information about micro inhabitants and our digestion process.

While there are other options available to sample the intestinal tract, like using endoscopy, researchers say that there’s a high chance of contamination from oral, gastric, or esophageal contents.

Additionally, endoscopy is a two-hour procedure in which the patient has to be either administered general anesthesia or sedated.

“The small intestine has so far only been accessible in sedated people who have fasted, and that’s not very helpful,” said Professor Oliver Fiehn, director of the West Coast Metabolomics Center at UC Davis.

Researchers explain in a statement that their new capsule, called CapScan, is administered orally. They conducted their study on 15 healthy people. 

So how does the capsule work?

The capsule travels from the upper intestine to the colon, collecting small volumes of biofluids and microorganisms. By this time, the capsule is covered in stool. The researchers also coated the capsule with a pH-sensitive material which helped them choose which part of the intestinal tract they wanted to sample for their study.

The researchers then analyzed contents like bacteria, viruses, host proteins, and metabolism in the upper intestine. They found that these contents in the upper intestine and stool differed dramatically in all 15 individuals. The team also factored in their diet, alcohol intake, fruit consumption, and metabolism.

Additionally, it was found that two subjects who had taken antibiotics six months before the study had different variations of bioactive fatty acid esters of hydroxy fatty acids, or FAFHAs, and sulfonolipids, metabolites which are associated with preventing diabetes and inflammation, said the statement.

“Overall, this device can help elucidate the roles of the gut microbiome and metabolome in human physiology and disease,” added Fiehn.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

Study abstract:

The spatiotemporal structure of the human microbiome, proteome and metabolome reflects and determines regional intestinal physiology and may have implications for disease. Yet, little is known about the distribution of microorganisms, their environment and their biochemical activity in the gut because of reliance on stool samples and limited access to only some regions of the gut using endoscopy in fasting or sedated individuals. To address these deficiencies, we developed an ingestible device that collects samples from multiple regions of the human intestinal tract during normal digestion. Collection of 240 intestinal samples from 15 healthy individuals using the device and subsequent multi-omics analyses identified significant differences between bacteria, phages, host proteins and metabolites in the intestines versus stool. Certain microbial taxa were differentially enriched and prophage induction was more prevalent in the intestines than in stool. The host proteome and bile acid profiles varied along the intestines and were highly distinct from those of stool. Correlations between gradients in bile acid concentrations and microbial abundance predicted species that altered the bile acid pool through deconjugation. Furthermore, microbially conjugated bile acid concentrations exhibited amino acid-dependent trends that were not apparent in stool. Overall, non-invasive, longitudinal profiling of microorganisms, proteins and bile acids along the intestinal tract under physiological conditions can help elucidate the roles of the gut microbiome and metabolome in human physiology and disease.

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