We're on the brink of a "consumable" revolution. Thanks to recent breakthroughs in nano chip technology, researchers have created chips, sensors, and cameras that are actually small enough to swallow. These miniaturized devices come in the form of a "smart" pill — a vitamin-sized tablet that analyzes and improves your body's internal systems.
The smart pill is an unsettling concept to people who fear the encroachment of data-sharing technology on their privacy. But it's an inevitable advancement of wearable tech. Neurometrix, Inc. has already created a wearable device that reduces chronic pain without medication. Google has developed a "smart" contact lens that monitors blood glucose levels in diabetics. It was only a matter of time before scientists figured out a way for us to wear digital devices inside our bodies.
How Are "Smart" Pills Used?
Researchers are developing ingestible technology to monitor patients' medication intake, improve brain function, and screen patients for possible health issues. Here's a list of ingestibles that could radicalize medical care in the next few years.
If you've ever taken prescription drugs, you know how easy it is to skip a round of meds. A moment of forgetfulness can cause easily treatable medical problems to persist. To combat missed doses, Proteus Digital Health developed a smart pill to help you keep up with your medication schedule.
Helius ingestibles are made from silicon and natural ingredients, and they contain a chip and sensor that's roughly the size of a grain of sand. Once the smart pill reaches the digestive system, the stomach acid dissolves its coating and activates a mini chip and sensor embedded in the pill. To indicate the time that the pill was ingested, the embedded chip sends a code to a battery-powered patch worn on the patient's skin.
The adhesive patch also contains sensors that can track body temperature, heart rate, sleeping patterns, and movement. It relays this vital information to a smartphone or tablet, so doctors can monitor a patient's physical condition and medication schedule in real time.
For now, patients have to take the Helius pill with their other medications, but Proteus hopes to eventually build its sensors into common medications.
Given Imaging Ltd. created this ingestible camera to screen patients for early signs of colon cancer. The miniaturized, battery-powered camera is embedded in a capsule about the size of a multivitamin. As it travels through the intestinal tract, the camera transmits images to a device worn on the patient's waist, which then relays the image to a smartphone or tablet.
The PillCam Colon's images aren't as clear as images taken during an in-office colonoscopy, so it won't replace the traditional procedure. Instead, this smart pill's niche market is the group of 750,000 American patients who can't complete a standard colonoscopies because of previous surgeries, colon diseases, anatomical issues, or fear. More people being screened will mean fewer deaths to colon cancer.
Nootropics are natural pill supplements that help improve attention, memory, learning, and intelligence. The most popular "smart drug" is modafinil, a prescription drug (sold under the brand name Provigil) that treats sleep disorders. Now it's used by college students and workaholics who want to maximize brainpower.
Scientists at Scripps Health, a nonprofit healthcare system in San Diego, are developing nanosensor prototypes that act as miniature disease alarms. These tiny nanosensor chips would travel in the bloodstream and alert the patient (via smartphone) of signs of infection, heart attack, or other cardiovascular issues.
Are Smart Pills Legal?
Helius was the first smart pill to be approved by the FDA (in 2012) and European Union (in 2010). The PillCam Colon got FDA approval in 2014, but it's still being tested and refined.
Modafinil was approved by the FDA to treat narcolepsy, and it's also approved by the Air Force to help pilots fight fatigue. Scripps Health's nanosensor prototypes are still being developed, so they aren't ready for FDA testing. Modafinil is the only "smart" drug on the market, but Proteus expects its technology to be commercially available in the next few years. In fact, the company announced a deal last month to prescribe its system to primary care and cardiology clinics at California's Barton Health Systems. This deal marks the time first any smart pill will be used outside of a clinical trial setting in the U.S.
Are Ingestibles Ethical?
You might be reluctant to swallow a device that tracks and shares your internal data on a smartphone. But you might think differently if it saved you from an impending heart attack, or if it helped you track whether your grandma was keeping up with her daily prescriptions.
Privacy concerns aside, smart pills can save lives and money. According to the The Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, about 50% of patients don't take their medications as prescribed. Skipping out on dosages or mixing the wrong drugs can have deadly consequences for patients with chronic medical conditions.
"People live busy and complex lives, and as a result often don't take their medicines correctly," said Andrew Thompson, CEO and cofounder of Proteus, to CNN. "We wanted to develop a solution that would help make existing medicines more effective in real life."