Camera pill to unveil secrets of horse’s gut

A University of Saskatchewan team is using an endoscopy capsule 
to research the workings of the equine GI tract

Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan are using a tiny camera to learn more about the long, winding and mysterious gut of a horse.

“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 Julia Montgomery, of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in a release.

The gastrointestinal tract of a horse is a large and complex thing, more than 100 feet in length, with 70 of those feet being small intestine alone.

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Montgomery is among a group of veterinary and engineering researchers at the University of Saskatchewan that is harnessing imaging technology to fill in the blanks.

Montgomery worked with equine surgeon Joe Bracamonte and Khan Wahid, a specialist in health informatics and imaging in the College of Engineering. The team used an endoscopy capsule about the size and shape of a vitamin pill — a sort of ‘mini submarine’ with a camera — to have a look inside a horse.

“This is really a cool way to look at the entire small intestine,” Montgomery said, explaining the only other ways are exploratory surgery or laparoscopy, which uses a thin, lighted tube inserted through an incision. Neither allows a view from inside. Veterinarians also can use an endoscope — basically a camera on the end of a thin cable — to look as far as the horse’s stomach, and a rectal exam to have a look from the other end.

Montgomery said capsule endoscopy offers a powerful new tool to diagnose diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease and cancer, or to check surgical sites. Researchers could use it to see how well drugs to stimulate bowel action are working, or to answer basic questions such as what “normal” small intestine function looks like.

Wahid has long worked with endoscopy capsule technology for humans and has even patented algorithms and data compression technology for their improved performance. The “camera pills” have been in use for human medicine for some time, he explained, but have yet to be applied in equine health.

“We thought, ‘why not try it for veterinary medicine?’” Wahid said.

On Mar. 1, they did just that, administering the capsule through a stomach tube directly to the horse’s stomach. For the next eight hours, the capsule and its camera made its way through the horse’s small intestine, offering a continuous picture of what was going on inside.

The team plans to run more tests in the next few months on different horses to gather more data. With this in hand, they plan to pursue funding to further develop equine capsule endoscopy.

“From the engineering side, we can now look at good data,” Wahid explained. “Once we know more about the requirements, we can make it really customizable, a pill specific to the horse.”

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