A vet’s newest tool

Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan are designing an endoscopy capsule capable of making detailed photographs of a horse’s innards, which are a largely unexplored frontier.

“Whenever I talk to students about the horse abdomen, I put up a picture of a horse and put a big question mark in the middle,” said veterinary researcher Dr. Julia Montgomery of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon.

The camera innovation could check surgical sites from the inside and assist in diagnoses of such ailments as inflammatory bowel disease and cancer.

“I thought the camera pill would really help us to be able to get a closer look at that part of the horse’s intestinal tract,” said Montgomery.

The only other methods are exploratory surgery or laparoscopy, which uses a lighted tube inserted through an incision. Neither of those provides a view from inside.

Veterinarians can also use an endoscope, but the minute camera on a wire can reach only as far as the horse’s stomach.

Montgomery is working with equine surgeon Dr. Joe Bracamonte and Khan Wahid, a specialist in health informatics and imaging at the university’s College of Engineering.

“The horse was the species I was interested in, so when I heard Dr. Wahid talking about having access to this technology and wanting to try it on other species, I really wanted to try it on a horse,” she said.

Earlier this year, three healthy horses and a large dog were tested using an endoscopy capsule, which is commercially available for humans. Humans swallow the camera, which looks like a large vitamin pill.

Horses are given the camera pill through the nose using a stomach tube, so the pill’s diameter is limited by the size of the nasal passage. It is expected to be about twice the size of the human version of the pill.

A prototype is still in development but Montgomery and Wahid devised a list of design modifications for horses based on human tests.

It will contain two lenses, one at each end of the capsule, because it tends to flip around in the horse’s large intestines.

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It will be able to electronically send digital colour images to a receiver attached to a belt wrapped around the horse’s rib cage. The strap contains antennae and amplifiers capable of collecting and amplifying the signal.

Software merges single images into a video clip so researchers can see the intestinal tract moving in peristaltic waves, the contractions in the digestive tract.

“I was very surprised at the image quality. It worked really well. We got about nine hours of recording. Besides a few gaps in the recording, overall, we got great images,” said Montgomery.

Battery life remains a concern.

“Once we put the pill in the stomach, we can’t control when it exits the stomach. My suspicion is that it sits in the cecum for a while because of gravity.

“So if it spends two hours sitting in the stomach, then you waste two hours of battery life.”

Researchers now need the ability to map the pill’s location while it’s inside the horse to control activation.

With that option, “you only switch (the camera) on and start taking pictures when it leaves the stomach, so it saves on battery life,” she said.

Future prototypes could contain biomarkers to measure other key health indicators, such as 
temperature, pH, specific amino acids and inflammation.

Wahid said they are also exploring options for an analogue sensor and photo diodes to help detect bleeding.

“There are quite a few interesting things we’re trying to add,” he said.

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Montgomery said that technology exists to add many new features but researchers must recognize restrictions caused by limited battery life.

“Unlike a human or dog where it would be easy to retrieve the pill and get the data out, it’s not that easy for a horse.”

The cost of more functionality is also being studied.

“If this is something that will cost the owner several thousand dollars to do, what are the odds they’re going to do it? That’s something we have to consider as well,” said Montgomery.

The researchers are waiting on funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada so they can continue development.

The university’s industry liaison office recently completed a survey as part of a market analysis to see if its services were aligned with the needs and wants of its clients.

“Industry is very keen and willing to support,” said Wahid, who added that the first prototype could be available next year.

Montgomery thinks future camera pills will come in several sizes to accommodate different purposes, including the lucrative pet market.

“More likely than not, there will be different models depending on questions like do you want to take pictures or do you want to take samples,” she said.

“The small animal market is always going to be bigger than the horse market just by sheer size. Not one size fits all.”

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