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Digital Pill: Tiny Camera Allows Look Inside Digestive System

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A fantastic voyage through the body in a miniature vessel? You probably saw it in a science fiction movie. For patients with intestinal bleeding, it is a reality.

Digital chips are so small that a tiny camera can now fit into a capsule about the size of a large vitamin, in what is called capsule endoscopy.

Test after test failed to find the cause of Joyce Barnes' intestinal problem.

"I'm losing blood and I don't know, they don't know, exactly where it's coming from," she said. "[Capsule endoscopy] is supposed to show why."

A pill with a tiny digital camera inside will do what other tests cannot -- get a detailed view of the small intestine.

"The X-ray and endoscopy just weren't adequate," said Dr. Dixon McKay, a gastroenterologist at Rex Hospital. "So it came out of a need to find small bowel problems. They're over 20 feet long."

The camera will transmit pictures through sensors taped to a patient's belly. The equipment is strapped to the patient for eight hours while the camera does its work.

"It will take about 55,000 pictures that will be recorded in a recorder box," registered nurse Margaret Ann Raynor said.

For one patient, the pictures led surgeons to the trouble spot. They removed a malignant tumor and stopped the bleeding.

"As with all medical procedures, with new technology, it's not inexpensive, but it certainly avoids other procedures. So it probably saves money in the long run in their workup," McKay said.

Without capsule endoscopy, the last option is exploratory surgery. Barnes is thankful for this easier option and expects it will the last test she has to endure.

"I feel like now they're going to get down to the bottom of it," she said.

McKay said the capsule camera is just the beginning. He believes future tiny devices will give doctors better views of the entire digestive system.


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