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A team from Cambridge Design Partnership has created a ground-breaking ‘smart pill’ to gather crucial nutritional information to help develop innovative new pet foods.

CDP scientists and engineers worked with the world-renowned Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition on an electronic pill to collect food samples inside the canine gut during digestion.

“It was certainly an unusual request and a major challenge,” says Will Bradley, who led the project for CDP. “Mars Petcare wanted to find out more about how dog food is digested, with the aim of improving their pet food. So they asked us here at CDP for help.”

“They needed samples of partially-digested food that they could gather in complete safety for the dog.”

Part of Mars, Incorporated, Mars Petcare has a portfolio that spans pet nutrition and health through brands including ROYAL CANIN®, WHISKAS® and PEDIGREE®. For Mars, CDP created a smart pill about the size of a grape that a dog could easily swallow.

“We gave it a sensor so that it knows when it has left the acidity of the stomach and entered the first part of the intestine,” explains Will. When it is correctly located the pill opens and takes a food sample, using a miniature piston-type mechanism. “This needs to be absolutely foolproof. The pill then closes, to contain and protect the sample as the pill moves through the remainder of a dog’s digestion.”

CDP was approached by Mars Petcare to bring to life an idea for intestinal sample collection in dogs. CDP created the pills at its laboratory in Cambridge, which were trialled at the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition in Melton Mowbray, the global pet research centre for Mars. There were many studies and iterations needed to refine the design.

The samples that are collected will be used to analyse the way various nutrients are absorbed during digestion. “The scientific understanding of this whole process had basically stalled for decades,” explains Mike Cane at CDP, who has worked on the project for the past 18 months, “because no one could retrieve these samples without invasive surgery to the dog.”

Working with animals is not straightforward, Mike admits: “At all times, there were such high welfare standards. An independent observer was on hand whenever we worked with the dogs. If any dog was looking uncomfortable they would intervene to stop that day’s trial. They really do pride themselves on the way the animals are treated there.”

Once the pill passes through the dog and is excreted, it is retrieved and the data from it is collected. “The data from the trials has been analysed by the lead scientist from WALTHAM, David Wrigglesworth, who will soon be publishing his findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals,” explains Mike.

In addition to surviving the rigours of a dog’s digestion, the pill can also be tracked on its journey. “Once it was clear that the pill worked well, Mars Petcare asked us if we could also find a way of knowing accurately exactly where it was as it passes through the dog,” says Mike. “So we also devised a special interactive coat worn by the dog which picks up a radio signal from the pill.”

The smart pill is so unique that it has been patented by the team.

“Here at CDP, we’re very proud of our achievement,” says Will. “I feel sure that it will enable Mars to create innovative new pet foods for many years to come.”

For further information, please contact: 
Andrea Cotton, andrea.cotton@cambridge-design.com

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