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Last Updated: Friday, 10 November 2006, 15:17 GMT
Scientists create artificial gut
Artificial stomach
The stomach is controlled by computer
UK scientists have built an artificial stomach to simulate human digestion.

The Institute of Food Research hopes it will aid the development of new superfoods by revealing how they are broken down in the gut.

The device, made from sophisticated plastics and metals, can withstand the corrosive gut acids and enzymes, and can be fed real food.

It mimics both the physical and chemical reactions that take place during digestion - and can even vomit.

This is an important tool that will allow us to understand what happens in the gut
Dr Peter Ellis
King's College London

Chief designer Dr Martin Wickham said his model was much more sophisticated than previous attempts, which tended to focus solely on reproducing the chemistry of digestion.

It even mimics the stomach contractions which are used to break up food, and send it on its way along the alimentary canal.

New treatments

Dr Wickham hopes his model will help scientists understand more about how food gets processed in the gut, and which nutrients get absorbed.

Armed with this knowledge, they may be able to develop healthier foods designed to manipulate the digestive process.

For instance, knowing how quickly glucose gets absorbed into the bloodstream would potentially help treat diabetes.

Dr Wickham said: "Our knowledge of what actually happens in the gut is still very rudimentary, but we hope that this model can help fill in some of the blanks."

Dr Peter Ellis, a biochemistry expert at King's College London, said: "This is an important tool that will allow us to understand what happens in the gut, which has essentially been like a black box until recently.

"This model is important because it gets the science of digestion right."

Dr Stephen Bloom, head of metabolic medicine at Imperial College in London, agreed the model could be useful - but warned that it might have limitations.

He said: "The stomach is an extraordinarily complex organ, so you cannot create a model that will undertake all of these functions."

Two-stage model

The top half of the model consists of a vessel in which food, stomach acids and digestive enzymes are mixed.

Once this hydration process is finished, the food gets broken down into smaller pieces that can be absorbed by the human body.

Computer software is used to control how long food remains in a particular part of the stomach, and the release of the gut secretions.

It has the capacity of about half the size of an actual stomach, and can "eat" the equivalent of a normal portion of fish and chips.

The artificial gut is already attracting commercial attention, with one company wanting to test how a new food product can release a specific nutrient into the intestine.

Another group wants to determine if soil contaminants, which could potentially be swallowed by children playing outside, get absorbed by the human body.

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