Some of you may recall the 1966 movie "Fantastic Voyage," in which the nuclear submarine Proteus is miniaturized to a length of one micrometer and injected into a Soviet defector in order to save him from a life-threatening blood clot in the brain.
Well, such science fiction may become reality soon with an interesting development at Osaka Medical College and Ryukoku University.
Dubbed the mermaid, the self-propelled, remote-controlled capsule endoscope developed jointly by the two institutions allows scanning of the entire digestive tract for signs of cancer and other ailments.
What's different from similar devices is that the mermaid is propelled by a tail fin that is electromagnetically stimulated from outside of the body. Other devices are merely swallowed, and follow the course of nature on their photographic trip back to the outside, whereas the mermaid can either be swallowed or inserted rectally. An operator can control it (position, and direction) using a joystick.
This ability to precisely control position is a major advantage when doctors want to focus in on an area of interest. A complete esophagus, stomach, intestine, and colon scan takes several hours, with the mermaid able to take two pictures every second. Free-fall remote endoscopes tend to make up for their lack of control by being more trigger happy -- taking up to 35 frames per second.
Measuring around 1 cm in diameter and 4.5 cm in length, the mermaid is admittedly a bit of a swallow, but compared with the alternative of conventional endoscopy, it sounds like a comfortable alternative once the entry procedure has been sorted. And the developers say it only costs around $30 or so more than existing swallowable systems that can't be controlled.