Artificial stomach enhancing digestive, dietary research at University of Manitoba

The University of Manitoba now has a never-ending belly which will never get heartburn to help researchers stomach any and all of the dietary and digestive research they have on their plate.

New 'model stomach' lets researchers watch the digestive process

Sijo Joseph is a research scientist from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, one of the organizations utilizing new artificial stomach equipment at the University of Manitoba. (Wildinette Paul/Radio-Canada)

The University of Manitoba now has a never-ending belly — and one which will never get heartburn — to help researchers stomach any and all of the dietary and digestive research they have on their plate.

The buffet-busting machine — an artificial stomach the size of a large refrigerator — is helping researchers better understand digestion and nutrition and may lead to healthier foods for real stomachs down the line.

"At the moment we are trying to find out the nutritional characteristics of cereals and pulses," explained Sijo Joseph, a research scientist from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, one of the organizations utilizing the new equipment.

"The ultimate aim is to see if whether these nutrients, such as starch and proteins, how it's being processed in the human body, and how much of its nutrients are available in human blood."

The machine simulates the stomach and the small intestines of both humans and animals using a series of glass tubes. It uses a combination of chemicals, bacteria, enzymes as well as engineering and software to break down food from start to finish.

Just like the human stomach, it takes the simulator about six hours to digest a meal.

The artificial stomach machine at the University of Manitoba simulates the stomach and the small intestines of both humans and animals using a series of glass tubes. It uses a combination of chemicals, bacteria, enzymes as well as engineering and software to break down food from start to finish. (Wildinette Paul/Radio-Canada)

After food is placed into the model stomach, the simulator swishes back and forth and mixes it with gastric acid before passing it into the three stages of the intestine.

At any stage researchers can take samples to see how the food's proteins, fats, carbohydrates and other components have been broken down and if they're small enough to be absorbed into the bloodstream.

'Can't feed that to people'

Working with the robot stomach is much easier than having to do the tests on real people, says Joseph.

"When you want to test food and food components we generally rely on human clinical trials … [which] are tedious and expensive to conduct," he said.

"This unique system will help us to mimic the human digestion and study the nutritional characteristics of the food in a faster and more cost-effective manner."

The simulator also allows researchers to test things too dangerous for people to eat, as well as food that's not quite ready for human consumption, says researcher Nancy Ames from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Nancy Ames, a researcher with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, says the artifical stomach allows researchers to test things too dangerous for people to eat, as well as food that's not quite ready for human consumption. (Wildinette Paul/Radio-Canada)

"Sometimes we need to understand how toxins are digested and we certainly can't feed that to people," she explained. "We develop some products that we think are more nutritious or will have lower glycemic response and be better for diabetics, but we can't always test it in people."

The model stomach cost roughly $600,000 and was purchased with the help of funding from the Province of Manitoba's Growing Innovation program.

The simulator will be used primarily by researchers from the University of Manitoba, the Canadian Centre for Agri-Food Research in Health and Medicine, and the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals.

But the unique equipment may also bring researchers in from around the world, said Manitoba Agriculture's Daryl Domitruk.

The equipment is helping researchers better understand digestion and nutrition, including a study on the nutritional characteristics of cereals and pulses. (Wildinette Paul/Radio-Canada)

"This opens the doors for people who, we believe, are very capable of doing very critical and world-class research," he said in a provincial release.

"This equipment will be able to show how the foods we produce in Manitoba can have a positive effect on health and could potentially save in health-care expenses."

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