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RFID Invention to Detect Esophageal Reflux

Doctors in Texas have developed innovative RFID-based medical technology to track esophageal reflux disease, a condition that is estimated to affect as many as 19 million people. The new solution combines RFID with sensor technology to measure and transmit data from within a patient's body.
May 31, 2007This article was originally published by RFID Update.

May 31, 2007—Doctors at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center working with engineers from the University of Texas Arlington have developed innovative RFID-based medical technology to detect gastroesophageal reflux disease, which is caused by stomach contents moving up the esophagus. The condition, commonly referred to as esophageal reflux or GERD, is estimated to affect as many as 19 million people.

The new solution combines RFID with sensor technology to measure and transmit data from within a patient's body. A dime-sized RFID chip is inserted in the esophagus, where it remains pinned until a physician removes it. Equipped with an electrical impulse sensor, the chip measures particular impulses that indicate the presence of acidic or nonacidic liquids in the esophagus. These collected measurements are transferred from the RFID chip to a wireless receptor hanging around the patient's neck.

The system is a vast improvement over existing technology, in which a flexible catheter tube is inserted into the esophagus through the nasal passage. In addition to being "very uncomfortable", as characterized by assistant professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern Dr. Shou Jiang Tang, the tube can interfere with the patient's standard eating behavior. Because the purpose of the apparatus is to track potential correlation between a patient's behavior and esophageal reflux, a change in behavior can skew the collected data. "Because of the catheter, you can't eat or drink the way you normally would," explained Dr. Tang in the announcement. "The test results can be biased because you change the way you eat."

The RFID solution is far less invasive. The chip is encased in plastic, and the patient should not feel its presence at all. The hope is that in addition to dramatically decreased discomfort, the solution will see patients eating and drinking according to their normal behavior. The resulting data could therefore more accurately reveal any correlation between ingestion patterns and incidence of esophageal reflux.

Under development for two years, the solution has only been tested in simulations; it has accurately identified acidic stomach fluid in a test tube, as well as wirelessly transmitted data through human tissue. The next step for the developers will be to test on animals. Success with animals will see the solution finally tested with humans. A patent has already been filed.

The healthcare arena is proving fertile ground for the application of RFID. In addition to the widely-reported initiatives in pharmaceutical track-and-trace and hospital equipment tagging, there is a steady stream of RFID-enabled inventions aimed at solving or improving existing healthcare issues. Last October, VeriChip parent Digital Angel announced a human-implantable RFID chip for measuring the glucose levels of diabetics. Kodak recently filed a patent for an edible RFID tag whose dissolution once ingested signals the occurrence of certain chemical reactions within the body (see Kodak Files Patent for Edible RFID Tag). Lastly, recall ClearCount, whose RFID-based solutions target "retained foreign bodies"; that is, surgical sponges that are accidentally left within a human body after completion of surgery. By tagging sponges with RFID, nurses can do a quick scan of a body with a handheld reader to immediately check that it is free of sponges before the surgeon closes the operating site. ClearCount indicates that retained foreign bodies cost the US healthcare industry more than one billion dollars annually, not to mention the obvious patient safety implications.

Read the announcement from UT Southwestern Medical Center
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