The Belt That Listens to Your Bowels

Alan Burdick in The New Yorker:

In 2005, Barry Marshall, an Australian gastroenterologist and researcher, shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery that peptic ulcers are caused not by stress, as was commonly thought, but by a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori. (Marshall, the director of the Marshall Centre for Infectious Diseases Research and Training, at the University of Western Australia, proved this in part by ingesting H. pylori himself and becoming ill.) The finding meant that ulcers could be treated with antibiotics, and it has made stomach cancer, often associated with ulcers, a rarity in developed countries.

Marshall has also spent considerable time confronting another common gut ailment, irritable-bowel syndrome, or I.B.S. “It occupies about thirty per cent of my practice,” he told me recently. I.B.S. is a complex of conditions that is defined mainly by its broad array of symptoms, which can include stomach pain, bloating, cramps, diarrhea, constipation, or any combination thereof; eleven per cent of Americans suffer from it. “It’s a diagnosis of exclusion,” Marshall said, meaning that it’s the vague category of what’s left over when more serious possibilities are ruled out. As a result, patients often must endure a steeplechase of uncomfortable tests—colonoscopies, biopsies, stool samples—only to learn, months later, that they have I.B.S., which can be treated with medicine, changes in diet, or both.

Marshall now thinks he’s found a way to diagnose I.B.S. quickly and directly: by listening to it. Earlier this week, at the annual Digestive Disease Week conference, in Washington, D.C., Marshall described a device that he and colleagues are developing: a wide belt, to be worn by the patient, that records the creaks and undulations of the gut, analyzes them with software, and recognizes the distinct sonic signature of I.B.S. For centuries, physicians have used their ears to pick up hints of trouble in the heart and lungs. In theory, I.B.S. should succumb to a similar approach. Marshall described the ailment as “a motility problem”—an abnormal movement of matter and gases through the intestines, producing a wild range of sounds as the bowel squeezes harder or softly at different times in different places. But the gut, unlike the heart or lungs, is more than twenty feet long, and, although physicians can listen to it, “they don’t listen long enough, and it’s hard to know what to listen for,” Marshall said. He began to imagine a high-tech gadget that could listen for a couple of hours, parse the many frequency patterns, and analyze the results. “That was just a concept,” Marshall said. “When we started, it wasn’t obvious that this would work.”

Marshall drew his inspiration, in part, from his son, who helps analyze seismic data from the seabed for hints of undiscovered reserves of petroleum.

More here.