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You swallow a pill which duly finds its way into the gastrointestinal tract. And that is where it goes to work. Microscopic wires in the pill can detect DNA fragments from cancer cells long before any tumour becomes visible. The data collected by the pill is transmitted automatically to your doctor’s mobile phone. The pill itself passes through the body by the usual process.

This is still a future scenario, but the developers of the nanopill believe that it will not be a very distant future. Every year, thousands of people in the Netherlands are diagnosed with bowel cancer (also known as intestinal cancer or, more properly, colorectal cancer), which is more prevalent among the over-60s. In its latter stages, the disease can be very painful. However, because there are no symptoms in the early stages, bowel cancer is often diagnosed too late.

A national screening system, with everyone aged fifty and above called for an examination, could save many lives. However, a physical exploratory examination is both expensive and distressing for the patient. The most obvious alternative is to ask everyone to submit a stool sample. Only if test results suggest early-stage cancer would the patient be invited for further examination, which will usually entail a rectoscopy or endoscopic examination.

University of Twente's nanopill would provide a far more patient-friendly way of determining whether someone has early-stage bowel cancer. It is possible that this technology will become available within five years.

Watch a video about the Lab-on-a-Chip nanopill.

The nanopill is now the subject of a children's book (in Dutch). Een pil met een lab erin by Martine Letterie was published by Uitgeverij Zwijsen, Tilburg, 2009.