Interactive Micro-implants to Regulate Digestion

Mainz University Medical Center and Fraunhofer Institute to set up a joint research project to develop a support system for the digestive tract

Dr. Rizky Widyaningsih demonstrates how in the future it will be possible to control micro-implants that maintain the normal rhythm of intestinal movements from a tablet PC. photo/©: Markus Schmidt, Mainz University Medical Center

What sounds like science fiction will soon become a reality: Researchers want to develop actively interlinked micro-implants that regulate the movement of the digestive tract. Such a system would undoubtedly have huge therapeutic benefits as it would, for example, facilitate the successful treatment of various functional disorders of the digestive tract. Collaborating with the Fraunhofer Institute in the Innovation Cluster INTAKT, physicians at the University Medical Center of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) aim to develop such an implantable assistance system. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is funding this excellence project to the tune of around EUR 9.5 million.

When the physiological pacemakers, such as nerve tissue in the intestine, no longer work or only perform at a reduced level, the functioning of the gut is impaired. A possible remedy in the form of a controllable, implantable assistance system is being developed with the help of physicians of the Department of General, Abdominal, and Transplantation Surgery at the Mainz University Medical Center. This could potentially make it possible to circumvent the effects of functional deficits and tissue damage in the digestive tract. Such an assistance system, which would be implanted in a minimally invasive procedure, could act as an intelligent pacemaker. It would be employed to safeguard the motility of the longest human organ on a temporary or even permanent basis.

“Our aim is to create implants which alternately perform the stimulating, retarding, and coordinating functions of the digestive system,” explained Professor Werner Kneist of the Department of General, Abdominal, and Transplantation Surgery, who is heading up the project at the Mainz University Medical Center. The idea is to insert up to twelve small implants at various points in the digestive tract to maintain the motility of the esophagus, the stomach, and the bowel. The small implants are designed to initiate the movements of the individual digestive organs by means of electrical stimulation. More importantly, they will be interconnected and able to communicate with each other and be controlled through optical or wireless systems. It should also be possible to connect them through an interactive interface to external databases and networks.

“The technique of using digital technologies to treat digestive disorders is showing considerable potential. This is because, in contrast to drugs, these interactive micro-implants, which are also known as electroceuticals, are effective only at a local level and are thus considered to be associated with fewer undesirable effects,” stressed Kneist. The way in which the assistance system is designed to work allows it to be controlled not only by the treating medical staff but also by the patient.

“This project represents a completely new form of interaction between human beings and technology,” emphasized Professor Hauke Lang, the Director of the Department of General, Abdominal, and Transplantation Surgery at the Mainz University Medical Center.

Initial trials of the micro-implants to be developed jointly with the Fraunhofer Institute are planned to start in the first quarter of 2017.