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A Medical Sensor You Can Swallow

FDA approval for an ingestible sensor clears the way for "digitized medicines"

2 min read
A Medical Sensor You Can Swallow

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

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Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light

Gene therapy and optoelectronics could radically upgrade hearing for millions of people

13 min read
A computer graphic shows a gray structure that’s curled like a snail’s shell. A big purple line runs through it. Many clusters of smaller red lines are scattered throughout the curled structure.

Human hearing depends on the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. A new kind of cochlear implant for people with disabling hearing loss would use beams of light to stimulate the cochlear nerve.

Lakshay Khurana and Daniel Keppeler

There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

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