Engineers create GPS-like smart pills with AI to track health inside the body

From Wearables to Swallowables: USC Engineering Researchers Create GPS-like Smart Pills with AI. Credit: Khan Lab at USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

Imagine finding your location without GPS.

Now, think about tracking a pill inside your body. This has been a major challenge with “smart” pills—pills equipped with sensors.

But engineers at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering have made a breakthrough.

They developed ingestible sensors that can detect stomach gases and track their location in real-time.

The Khan Lab at USC created these smart capsules to identify gases linked to stomach issues like gastritis and gastric cancers.

Their research, published in Cell Reports Physical Science, shows how these pills can be accurately monitored using a new wearable system.

Yasser Khan, an Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at USC, believes this technology could someday act like a “Fitbit for the gut” and help in early disease detection.

Wearable devices with sensors already show promise in tracking body functions, but tracking ingestible devices has been difficult.

However, innovations in materials, miniaturization of electronics, and new protocols developed by Khan’s team have made it possible to track these devices specifically in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

The team, part of the USC Institute for Technology and Medical Systems Innovation (ITEMS) at the Michelson Center for Convergent Biosciences, used a wearable coil that generates a magnetic field.

This coil, placed on a t-shirt, works with a trained neural network to locate the capsule inside the body.

According to Ansa Abdigazy, the lead author and a Ph.D. student in the Khan Lab, this achievement has not been demonstrated with a wearable before.

The second innovation in this device is the new “sensing” material. The capsules are equipped not just with tracking electronics but also with an “optical sensing membrane” that detects specific gases.

This membrane is made of materials whose electrons change behavior in the presence of ammonia gas.

Ammonia is linked to H. pylori, a gut bacteria that can indicate peptic ulcers, gastric cancer, or irritable bowel syndrome. Khan explains, “The presence of this gas can be an early signal of disease.”

The USC team has tested this device in various environments, including liquids and a simulated bovine intestine. “The ingestible system with the wearable coil is compact and practical, offering a clear path for human health applications,” says Khan. The device is patent-pending, and the next step is to test it with swine models.

Beyond detecting stomach issues, this device has potential for monitoring brain health due to the brain-gut connection. Neurotransmitters in the gut are linked to neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Khan aims to develop non-invasive ways to detect these neurotransmitters.

This focus on the brain is the ultimate goal of Khan’s research, offering new methods to detect and monitor conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.