It may not be the most glamorous undertaking, but a local medical technology startup is booting up a new clinical trial aimed at helping patients with inactive bowels.
Last week, El Camino Hospital announced that it will be the first site to try out the GutCheck System, a new technology designed to monitor the activity in the digestive tract. Patients who undergo surgery often see a halt in movement and contractions in the small intestine and colon for days, and it's a challenge to find out when the body is back in working order.
The device itself is a small patch that is attached to the abdomen. It's designed by the company G-Tech Medical, at the Fogarty Institute for Innovation on the El Camino Hospital campus. Steve Axelrod, CEO of G-Tech Medical, described the device as a circular band-aid with electrodes on it that sends raw data to an app on a wireless device like a smartphone.
Similar to the heart, the gastrointestinal tract is full of muscles that contract by way of electrical signals that can be tracked. Axelrod said the GutCheck System could be described as an "EKG for the gut" and can monitor electrical signals well below the surface of the skin, giving physicians a clear view of digestive activity in a non-invasive way.
"We're really excited about this. We really feel like we're going to change health care in our area for these patients in seeing what's really going on."
After surgery, it's common for these muscles to completely cease working for hours or even days, Axelrod said, particularly after invasive surgery and a lot of anesthesia. But the methods for figuring out when the muscles are back in working order is more or less a guessing game based on whether patients can eat and digest food. This can be particularly tough after abdominal surgery.
"Sometimes they can tolerate eating, but they really aren't ready and their stomach has to be pumped," Axelrod said. "That happens around 25 percent of the time."
The two-year trial is expected to include 80 patients in the hospital who undergo either open or laparoscopic gastrointestinal surgery. Patients will put on the patch, which will record electrical activity and transmit it to a cloud server for analysis of activity in the digestive tract. While the scope of the study is focused on the loss of gastrointestinal function following surgery, Axelrod said it can be a major step toward understanding maladies that cause bloating, chronic abdominal pain, constipation and bowel diseases like Crohn's disease.
An estimated 60 to 70 million people in the U.S. experience some type of disease that affects the digestive system, according to the National Institutes of Health. Disorders that affect gastrointestinal functions prompt about 40 million office visits annually, and while they aren't life-threatening, they can be tricky to diagnose and can have a serious impact on quality of life.
In order to figure out what's causing these problems, Axelrod said it's going to take a large body of data and research, and a whole lot of tracking data, to see how activity in the gut changes under specific conditions. But so far, he said, there's not a lot of movement towards new tech innovations for the digestive tract.
The G-Tech Medical team has been working on the GutCheck technology since 2011, and is currently operating out of the Fogarty Institute alongside several other entrepreneurial tech startups. Mountain View and the greater Bay Area has been a hotbed for new medical technology in recent years, Axelrod said, but advancements in gastrointestinal tech have been anything but explosive.
"It's not like cardiac or neuro (tech) where there (are) so many companies doing so many new things," Axelrod said. "But there's a huge need. There hasn't been a good way to measure the function of the gut."
Axelrod, a Yale graduate with a doctorate in elementary particle physics, said his mission really hasn't changed much since he switched to developing medical technology particularly in his larger data-driven goal to find out how activity works in the gut. When he spent time smashing particles together and observing the most basic building blocks of the universe, he said it was a constant search to find the Higgs boson a key elementary particle that would do wonders to explain a cascade of theories.
"That's kind of what we're doing here," he said. "We're finding the Higgs boson from the data in your gut."