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Listen to your gut

Listen to your gut

Nobel Laureate Professor Barry Marshall needs your help in advancing a pioneer study into bowel disorders.

Listen to your gut

Have you ever felt inclined to contribute to world-class medical research but didn’t do anything about it because you couldn’t bear the thought of not chilling out in your armchair? (Same, me too, all the time.)

Well, never fear, because now you can do both.

Professor Barry Marshall and his team at the Noisy Guts Project are developing innovative technology that could easily and cheaply diagnose irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and they need your help.

A GUTFUL OF TROUBLE

If you’ve ever had a tummy bug, you’ll know that having a troubled gut can really ruin your day.

But can you imagine suffering those symptoms repeatedly, frequently and for your entire life?

The reality is that millions of people suffer in this way, with IBS affecting approximately one in five Aussies.

Everyone experiences IBS differently. The most common symptoms including abdominal pain and discomfort, diarrhoea, constipation and bloating. Symptoms vary in severity and can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days.

The tricky thing is, there is no diagnostic tool for IBS. While there are management strategies that exist for the condition, there are also other conditions with which IBS can be confused. Crohn’s disease and colitis are both gut disorders that manifest with similar symptoms.

“If there’s no real diagnostic test for irritable bowel, then it’s difficult to say people have it or they don’t have it and it’s difficult to plan a treatment.”

“If there’s no real diagnostic test for irritable bowel, then it’s difficult to say people have it or they don’t have it and it’s difficult to plan a treatment,” explains Professor Marshall.

To distinguish between them, patients must undergo a raft of invasive and expensive tests to rule out one or the other. Colonoscopies, barium enemas and X-rays can all be part of the process. “There are so many unpleasant symptoms … it’s kind of adding insult to injury to make diagnosis really, really difficult,” says Noisy Guts project manager Dr Mary Webberley.

But at QEII, an alternative is under development.

BELT UP

Though the Nobel Laureate has a history of conducting some invasive experiments, Professor Marshall’s current project is infinitely safer and really quite comfortable. The Noisy Guts Project is testing the use of an acoustic belt that will help diagnose IBS by simply amplifying and recording the grumblings of one’s gut.

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Image|The Noisy Guts Project
The Noisy Guts team is multi-disciplinary and includes hardware engineers, data analysts and medical doctors

“For hundreds of years, doctors have been listening to your heart and different noises inside your abdomen with a stethoscope. But obviously they can’t listen for very long.”

“So wouldn’t it be much better if, instead of just listening for a couple of minutes, you could listen for an hour or even longer? Nowadays, we can do that because, with MP3 players and things like that, a tiny little chip can record all these noises for hours and hours. Days, even.”

“That’s a common factor in medicine and medical sciences is it makes advances. One of the first things that often happens is some new technology comes along that allows you to measure something that you couldn’t measure before.”

But what exactly are they measuring?

THE SOUND OF GASSY GUTS

Professor Marshall holds his hand up and puts his fingers in a circle, almost in an OK symbol. Slowly, smoothly, he moves his hand along and around an imaginary bowel in the sky.

“You know peristalsis, this little contraction that starts up in your stomach, it moves at about 30 centimetres a minute. And if you’re doing surgery, it’s pretty awesome, you see this little contraction and [the intestine] just narrows, eventually it goes all the way down. That’s normal.”

Video|ENDOSCOPYVIDEOS

“But people with irritable bowel, maybe they have quite a strong contraction, or maybe it gets out of sync and there’s one contraction that’s stopping another from moving food through, so you could develop more pressure in different places in the gut.”

“The contraction itself is quite silent. But there’s always a little bit of gas mixed with the food. There might also be some gas produced by bacteria or fermentation of your food.”

“As that gas moves through the bowel, it makes a noise... a doctor with a stethoscope listening in one spot might not hear it, but our sensors are very sensitive and pick up noise from all over the bowel.”

“As that gas moves through the bowel, it makes a noise,” adds Dr Webberley. “A doctor with a stethoscope listening in one spot might not hear it, but our sensors are very sensitive and pick up noise from all over the bowel.”

The audio recordings of participants’ gut noises are then sent off to a supercomputer to examine whether there are any patterns within the data. It is the hope of the Noisy Guts team that classifying the gut noises will help distinguish IBS, allow for the development of an audio diagnostic tool and help patients avoid the expensive, invasive diagnostic tests we use now.

LEND US YOUR GUTS

The Noisy Guts Project has made good headway so far, but they need the community to lend them a gutful of sounds to really make their findings robust.

Dr Webberley says, “At the moment, we can differentiate between the sort of sounds that come from someone with healthy guts and somebody with irritable bowel syndrome with pretty good accuracy … but we want to improve the performance of our technology and expand its capabilities.”

To keep advancing the study and the accuracy of the diagnostic tool, the team needs to record more guts.

It’s a safe, non-invasive study that some participants have likened to going to the hairdressers. “You kind of just have to sit still for a few hours, and you actually get to relax.”

The research team want to hear from healthy individuals, people with IBS and also a group that are particularly hard to recruit—people with a recent diagnosis of Crohn’s, colitis or proctitis.

And those of you out there who think your guts only rumble when you’re hungry? Dr Webberley says, “That’s what we want, we want to know what normal is.”

This stage of data collection will run for about 2 more months.

Visit this page to find out more and get involved. You can also contact members of the Noisy Guts Project team on 08 6457 2516 or marshallcentre@uwa.edu.au.

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