Inside The Smart, Sensor-Laden Pill That's Coming Sooner Than You Think

In the near future, pills could not only contain drugs, but also act as tiny transmitters of information from inside our bodies.

One of the entries in Co.Exist's recent list of World-Changing Ideas for 2014 is the concept of ingestible sensors, which people will swallow to monitor and improve their health. Biotech company Proteus Digital Health already has an early prototype: a "smart pill" made up of a sensor that is the size of a pinhead paired with a body patch that monitors activity and vital signs. Today, that sensor only transmits information about what pill a patient has taken and when they have taken it. But in the future, Proteus could go far beyond that.

Here's how its "Helius" system works:

A patient swallows their pill along with the sensor (Proteus is still working with pharmaceutical companies on integrating pills and sensors). The sensor is "only made from ingredients that you would find in your diet--essentially, it's a food-based computer that's built out of dietary minerals," explains Andrew Thompson, CEO of Proteus. Even the quantity of silicon, copper, and magnesium contained in the sensor is minute; the recommended daily allowance of copper, for example, is about 1.5 milligrams. Proteus's sensor contains seven micrograms.

The system has no battery or antenna--it's powered inside the body by stomach fluids. "We've created a completely natural electrical signal inside your body using our device that then travels through your body just like a heartbeat would," says Thompson.

That signal is then picked up by the patch, which itself keeps track of health indicators like sleep, activity, temperature, respiration, and heart rate. Each sensor transmits a unique number, so doctors or caretakers know exactly what pill was taken by the patient. The patch transmits all of the sensor data and its own data every so often to a smartphone via Bluetooth. All of that data is then aggregated, so the smartphone user can see whether a patient is taking their medication, and how their body is responding over time.

The sensors themselves are extremely cheap. "Creating a sensor the size of a pinhead essentially adds almost no cost--it's a penny or less to integrate that into a pill," says Thompson. The patch, which Thompson says will "look and feel like consumer products with a very, very low cost structure," will eventually cost under 50 cents per day.

Thompson hopes that a pill integrated with a Helius sensor will be available in the next year or so. There are any number of uses: mentally ill patients who neglect to take their medicine, elderly patients, and even transplant patients who need to be monitored closely for health and medication adherence.

As the technology advances and more companies get involved, there's also the worrisome possibility that patients could be given sensor-filled pills without their knowledge, or be required to take them by insurers. Privacy will be a concern. But then again, we're already becoming more and more open about health data as health and fitness trackers become more popular.

Whatever happens with privacy concerns in the future, the sensor's current functionality is just the beginning: "We're at the beginning of 30-year arc of innovation," says Thompson

[Image: Pills via Shutterstock]

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