An oversized version of a synthetic colon. (Credit: University of Colorado Boulder)

Researchers are developing an artificial, robotic small intestine for use in medical laboratories. The idea of a robotic small intestine may seem strange, as robotic devices are often thought of as being rigid and hard. However, the team will take advantage of an emerging robotics technology created using a kind of flexible, rubber-like material lined with sensors. It can also expand and contract on demand.

The researchers' goal is to make something that functions the same way as a real small intestine, where a tube of synthetic muscles can sense each other. So when one contracts, the muscle adjacent to it can feel that change and know it needs to contract next.

Ultimately, the researchers envision the artificial small intestine as a tool to accelerate medical research and evaluation of new colonoscopy and colorectal cancer screening devices and treatments, and simultaneously reduce the use of testing on animals.

It would also be a strong training tool. While many colonoscopies are performed by gastroenterologists, they are also done by general surgeons and even primary care physicians. This system would offer a new way for doctors to refine their skill before treating patients.