Even pills are going digital.
This week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an ingestible sensor that can be packaged inside a pill. The sensor, made by Proteus Digital Health, is intended to help patients stick to their medication plans. When it reaches the stomach, it sends a signal to a patch that the patient wears on the skin. That patch records the time when the medication and its sensor were ingested, and transmits that information (along with some other health stats like heart rate) to a smartphone app. The patient can then share his records with doctors, family members, or anyone else who's helping him monitor his medication compliance.
The tiny sensor, which Proteus says is mostly made of silicon and is the size of a grain of sand, powers up when it hits the stomach and encounters fluids: It uses magnesium and copper as electrodes, and the fluid acts as the ion bridge for the electrochemical reaction. The company seems to assume that people will be creeped out by the idea of swallowing a sensor, so in an animated video, below, Proteus compares the sensor to the most innocuous of science class experiments: the potato battery.
Proteus says it's investigating applications for patients with diabetes, people with diseases of the central nervous system like schizophrenia and Alzheimer's, and organ transplant recipients who have to follow strict drug regimens to suppress their immune systems.
While no pharmaceutical companies have yet come out with "digitized" medicines, Proteus has picked up industry collaborators like Novartis. And in the EU, where the system has already received regulatory approval, a retail pharmacy chain has announced plans to sell packages that include both inert sensor-enabled pills and the patient's usual medications.
Image and Video: Proteus Digital Healthcare
Eliza Strickland is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum, where she covers AI, biomedical engineering, and other topics. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.