Early in August, the FDA gave its official stamp of approval for a “digital pill” that will help medical professionals track a patient’s health from inside the body. Sounding like something dreamed up in the mind of a Hollywood screenwriter – the 1966 classic Fantastic Voyage comes to mind – there’s actually a lot more science fact here than science fiction.
How Does it Work?
The electronic silicon microchip that does all of the thinking is actually only the size of a grain of sand, making it possible for it to be embedded in a pill and easily swallowed. Comprised of tiny amounts of magnesium and copper, the microchip doesn’t rely on any battery to operate. In fact, the minute voltage it generates is entirely powered by the body’s digestive juices, turning the patient’s body into one really big (in proportion, anyway) power source. From there, a signal is generated and received by a sensor patch worn directly on the skin. Once the signal is received by the patch, it’s re-routed to a phone app that can deliver information straight to the patient’s doctor.
What Does it Do?
Created by Proteus Digital Health, the digital pill – which used to bear the moniker “Ingestion Event Marker” but is now simply being referred to as an “ingestible sensor”– was developed as a means of informing doctors when their patients have taken their scheduled medication. Apparently, people not taking their prescribed medications at the right times and in the right dosages is a big problem in the medical industry. Big enough for Proteus to have gone to bat to invent an ingenious method of monitoring pill intake remotely without having to have someone holding the patient’s hand.
Far from giving doctors the ammunition necessary to reprimand their patients for failing to take their pills at the right time, the information collected will give doctors better insight into developing a medication schedule that’s better tailored to the patient’s habits. It will also be able to tell doctors how patients are responding to their medications, as well as gathering and transmitting addition information like heart rate, body position and activity level.
What the Future Holds in Store for the Digital Pill
If you think that monitoring the taking of meds describes the limit of science’s plans for the ingestible sensor, you probably haven’t seen enough science fiction. At the present time, the FDA’s approval only extends to use in placebos, but Proteus has bigger plans for its invention. In the future, you can expect digital pills to become a part of mainstream medicine. Already, Proteus claims that they’ve tested out using the digital pill for use with medications that treat a wide variety of common ailments including hypertension, diabetes, heart health, mental health, and tuberculosis. Diabetes patients will be able to take advantage of advancements that will purportedly measure changes in their blood glucose to suggest more accurate medication dosages and frequencies.
Others in the Game
As you might imagine, Proteus isn’t going it alone in their revolutionary efforts. Last year, it was reported that scientists at Rice University’s McDevitt Lab had developed a Programmable Bio-Nan-Chip (PBNC). The PBNC is capable of detecting cancer and heart disease solely from a sample of a patient’s saliva, which could eventually lead to an early warning system for the killer diseases so people can seek early treatment instead of waiting for symptoms to arise.
Simultaneous study is taking place at Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Israel’s Tel Aviv University for the creation of a remote controlled “microswimmer” robot roughly the size of a horse pill that’ll take direction from an MRI machine to troll through the body’s intestines in search of signs of gastrointestinal cancer. This technology is a quantum leap beyond current methods that involve far less effective forms of endoscopy, including capsule endoscopy which takes snapshots as it passes through the body.
Nobody’s sure exactly how long it will be before the FDA agrees to the use of digital pill technology in conjunction with actual medications, but one thing is certain – now that the initial hurdle has been negotiated, things are likely to start moving faster than a microswimmer’s pace.