A new imaging technique involving a specially-prepared liquid that patients drink could help doctors better diagnose and eventually treat illnesses in the gut.
The small intestine is not small. And it’s not easy to examine. Sandwiched between the stomach and the large intestine, in an average adult it is 7 meters long and 2.5 centimeters thick. Getting a picture of it with X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging or ultrasound is limited because of safety issues, accessibility or low resolution.
University at Buffalo researchers wanted to get around those problems.
“We thought it would be interesting if we could make some type of thing that you could drink, and it would pass through your intestine without getting absorbed into your body so it would be safe," said Jonathan Lovell, assistant professor of biomedical engineering.
The scientists created a drink called nanojuice. It is infused with microscopic nanoparticles which contain molecules of a dye that absorb light from the infrared spectrum.
“That’s the area of light that passes through your body the best," Lovell said. "If you have ever held up a flashlight to your hand or your ear, you can see the red light shining through. That type color of light can get through the body the best. So we made the nanojuice to absorb that color of light.”
The researchers gave the nanojuice to laboratory mice, then scanned their abdomens with a harmless laser light, in an imaging process called photoacoustic tomography. What they saw was an unparalleled view of the organ.
The combination of nanojuice and photoacoustic tomography illuminates the intestine of a mouse. (Credit: Jonathan Lovell)
“You can actually see the intestine motor patterns," Lovell said. "You can pick out how the intestine is working in real time without any kind of invasive procedures.”
The nanojuice passed safely through the gut without being absorbed or degraded. Lovell hopes to move to human clinical trials in the near future, which he says could ultimately lead to a better understanding of how the intestine works.
“To try to help people shed light on not only disease diagnosis, but also treatment and see if the treatments that are being prescribed by the doctors are affecting the disease that people have in the gastrointestinal track,” Lovell said.
Lovell's team has made the nanojuice in four different colors, which he says in theory could be used at the same time to look at the diseased tissues as the nanojuices move through them.
The work is described in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.