A Pacemaker for Your Digestive System

BioTx, a company based in Palo Alto, Calif., founded by EE Ph.D. students Anatoly Yakovlev and Daniel Pivonka, recently did what in startup terms is called a “pivot." They're still planning to commercialize their Stanford research in electronic devices that can be implanted in the body and powered and controlled wirelessly. But a year ago they were focused on developing self-propelling chips that could swim through the bloodstream to get to where they needed to be, say, on the heart. About three months ago, they say they got a much better, or at least easier to commercialize, idea for using their technology. The chips they are now working to develop would be implanted in more ordinary ways, say, laparoscopically, would not help the heart, but rather help the digestive system. The chips can slow the emptying of the stomach, triggering feeling of fullness in obese patients, or do the opposite for people struggling with gastroparesis (delayed stomach emptying), a common side effect of diabetes. And patients could take advantage of the technology with a lot less risk than a gastric bypass. In the future, Yakovlev hopes the devices could also provide relief for patients with chronic conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and gastroesophageal reflux disease. The market, the company believes, is huge.

Sending chips “swimming inside the body is far off and risky,” Yakovlev said, “this is a more immediate need with therapies developed that have been proven to work.”

A number of researchers have demonstrated that electrical stimulation can act as a gastric pacemaker.  And researchers have been working on designs for such implantables, but no such device is yet on the market. 

BioTx, which announced its new focus at Stanford’s StartX Demo Day last week, is now working with researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Texas Medical Center, who will help them with animal testing and clinical trials.

Photo: a scene from the movie Fantastic Voyage. Credit: 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

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