Explore as a

Share our content


Published 8 November 2021

Representing Aotearoa with robotic capsule for gut sampling

Muhammad Rehan from Massey University represented New Zealand at the Falling Walls Lab finale over the weekend, where contestants from all over the world pitched their breakthrough ideas to pressing global challenges, such as access to drinking water, increasing bacterial resistance to antibiotics and degradation of coral reefs.

Rehan earned the right to pitch his innovative solution by winning the Falling Walls Lab New Zealand contest with his robotic capsule that aims to break down the wall of gut sampling. 

An engineering graduate originally from Pakistan, Rehan is pursuing a PhD in microrobotics at Massey University. He is working on developing a robotic capsule which has the potential to take samples of microorganisms or digestive fluids along the full length of the gut.

As Rehan pointed out in his 3-minute talk, data from the US shows that more health dollars are spent on gut-related issues than heart disease or trauma, for instance. Each year 8 million people die worldwide due to gut-related problems. Gut-related problems include cancer, coeliac disease, crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, to name a few. Since the gut can regulate stress, anxiety and mood, gut health has an impact on mental health also. “Early diagnosis of gut-related problems is important, but we don’t have the tools to fully diagnose the gut,” Rehan explains. The current proxy for gut sampling is faecal samples. These are easy to obtain and non-invasive but they can’t give you information about a specific location along the 9 metres of gastrointestinal tract. The solution to this is his ’robotic capsule’. The size of a large capsule, it can be swallowed and then with its spring loaded and sealing mechanism, it can open to take a sample at a specific location in the gut and then seal closed, so as not to be contaminated with material from lower in the tract before it is passed out. Rehan’s team is the first in the world to collect a microbiota sample from a gut lining. They have been testing the robotic capsule in a living intestinal model of three animal species. Currently, the capsule can be followed in the intestinal tract by imaging and remotely controlled to take a sample. It is also possible that the change of pH from the stomach to the small intestine could trigger it to take a sample. Another option is for the capsule to open at a specific time.

Rehan was selected from applicants from New Zealand who presented their innovative ideas at an online Falling Walls Lab New Zealand event held by Royal Society Te Apārangi in September, with support from German Embassy in Wellington, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment Catalyst: Leaders Fund and EURAXESS Australia & New Zealand.

“Thank you Royal Society Te Apārangi and Falling Walls Foundation for providing this opportunity to present my research,” Rehan said.

The global event is run by The Falling Walls Foundation, a non-profit organisation in Berlin, dedicated to the support of science and the humanities. It was established in 2009, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At its heart is the question ‘Which are the next walls to fall?’ as a result of scientific, technological, economic and sociological breakthroughs.

Ana Montalban-Arques, Winner of Falling Walls Lab Switzerland, won the overall emerging talent science breakthrough of the year for her solution to Breaking the Wall of Ineffective Cancer Therapies. She is developing a therapy using commensal bacteria as an alternative treatment to chemotherapy.

View Rehan’s presentation of Breaking the Wall of Gut Sampling at the finale.

Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi