It sounds like the premise for a futuristic medical thriller: doctors prescribe pills for their patients that double as ingestible sensors, wirelessly reporting back on the body’s vital signs.
A simple version of this already exists: a biotech company called Proteus Digital Health has actually created a primitive version of just such a sensor to track what drugs patients have taken; it was FDA-approved in 2012.
Dubbed the Helius, Proteus’s "smart pill" system consists of a pinhead-sized sensor embedded in a pill, and a battery-powered patch that monitors various health indicators, such as sleep, activity, respiration, and heart rate—kind of like a Fitbit tracker on steroids.
The sensor is powered by the human body, no batteries required. Once it has been swallowed, the device transmits a signal to the patch, indicating the time of ingestion and type of pill swallowed. The patch periodically sends all of its data to a designated smartphone.
Knowing what medication patients swallow and when they swallow it "is one of the most important pieces of information you could possibly have in medical science," explains Andrew Thompson, CEO of Proteus. Today, doctors don’t have a way to measure exactly how patients respond to medications over time. Having precise data about when patients swallow their pills—and knowing what physiological responses happen as a result—is invaluable.
The current system requires patients to take a placebo pill containing the sensor along with their medication, but Proteus is collaborating with pharmaceutical companies—including Novartis and Otsuka Pharmaceutical (the company behind Abilify, a drug for bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia)—to develop pills that feature both medication and sensors.
The first fully integrated pills are expected to be available in 2014 or 2015. Beyond that, Thompson speculates that Proteus could eventually add the ability to measure core body temperature to its ingestible sensors—another useful data point for doctors and caregivers looking for warning signs that a patient might not be doing well.
Proteus is currently the only company making inroads in the digital pill world. "I think it's possible there will be other companies that will try to duplicate our technology. Our mission is to enable a whole new way of delivering health services," says Thompson.