Opportunity in the wind for gut research

Flatulence and intestinal gases are certainly not heaven scent. They are embarrassing – or perhaps entertaining – in equal measure, and increasingly seen as important to our digestive health.

This week, the results of a comprehensive study of intestinal gases, led by UNSW Sydney and published in Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology were published. The study examined all available literature on gastrointestinal gases, including their interactions with the microbiome of the gut, their associated disorders, and the way that they can be measured and analysed.

With the exception of nitrogen, the gases found in the intestines have been linked with various gut diseases including malabsorption of food, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) and even colon cancer, especially when the gas profiles deviate from the norm.

Lead author and ARC Laureate Fellow with UNSW’s School of Chemical Engineering, Professor Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh, says the purpose of the study is to aid better understanding of the various gases in our digestive system, and show how vital they are for human health.

“This is about providing knowledge to people about the importance of gases in the gut,” he said.

“Rather than laughing, or feeling embarrassed about this subject, there is good reason to take this very seriously.”

In the study, the authors examine each of the main gases that are found in the gastrointestinal system.

“Interestingly, the gases in most abundance throughout the digestive system – nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen and even methane – are odourless,” Professor Kalantar-Zadeh said.

By contrast, the smelly sulphide compound gases exist in trace amounts in the colon. While nitrogen and oxygen only reach the gut by being swallowed, carbon dioxide can also be chemically produced in the stomach. Other gases are mostly by-products of the colonies of bacteria living in our intestines, known as the microbiome, as they break down carbohydrates, fats and proteins.

In addition, the UNSW team, together with its partners at Monash University and start-up company Atmo Biosciences, is commercialising a revolutionary tool to analyse the gastrointestinal gases in vivo (within the body) in the form of an ingestible capsule loaded with gas-sensing technology. The capsule can detect gaseous biomarkers as it passes through the gut, all the while transmitting the captured data wirelessly to the cloud for aggregation and analysis.

“There is no other tool that can do what this capsule does,” Professor Kalantar-Zadeh said.

“In our early trials, the capsule has accurately identified the onset of food-related fermentation in the gut, information that would be immensely valuable for clinical studies of food digestion and normal gut function.”

The results of the trial currently under way by Atmo Biosciences to test the commercial version of the capsule, will be detailed in a future research paper.

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