A new camera that is small enough to be swallowed could help spot cancer and other illnesses much earlier than can be achieved with current practices.

The minute camera, developed at the University of Washington, consists of seven fiber optic cables encased in a capsule about the size of a typical pain killer, the AP news agency reports.

The new camera technology could help detect cancer cells faster and less painfully than with current methods using standard endoscopes, the developers said. These tools are normally around 1cm wide and the patient must be sedated before it can be used.

Exploring inner space

In the future, these pill-sized cameras could also travel to parts of the body still undiscovered by non-surgical tools during laparoscopic surgery.

The new camera technology is also cheaper – it costs about a fifth of the price of a standard endoscope, which normally weighs in at more than $5,000, according to AP.

The tiny camera is attached to a 1.4mm thick string, allowing the doctor to move the camera around and, more importantly, pull it back up once the work is done.

A pill with strings attached

Eric Seibel, a research associate professor of mechanical engineering and the main developer of the technology, is the only human who has tried the device so far. He told AP it’s like swallowing a pill with a string attached to it.

"Never in your life have you ever swallowed anything and it's still sticking out of your mouth, but once you do it, it's easy," he said.

Full testing of the camera technology is set to start at the Seattle Veterans Administration hospital next month.