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A Pacemaker for Your Digestive System

BioTx is developing tiny, wirelessly powered chips to treat digestive disorders and obesity

2 min read
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

The Conversation (0)
Illustration showing an astronaut performing mechanical repairs to a satellite uses two extra mechanical arms that project from a backpack.

Extra limbs, controlled by wearable electrode patches that read and interpret neural signals from the user, could have innumerable uses, such as assisting on spacewalk missions to repair satellites.

Chris Philpot

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that’s attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he’s fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today’s technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we’re tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

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