Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Smartphones, smart homes, smart cars… Now pills, too, are getting smart.
Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created an ingestible capsule that can sit in the stomach for up to a month and interact wirelessly with a smartphone. This 3D-printed pill can be personalized and, once ingested by a patient, can send and receive information to and from the outside world using Bluetooth.
The electronic pill can be instructed through an app to gradually release drugs over an extended period of time in response to symptoms. It could also be used to communicate with wearables and other implantable medical devices, which in turn could pool information to be sent to the patient or doctor through a smartphone.
The MIT team has tested the e-pill in pigs, demonstrating its ability to monitor body temperature and relay that information straight to a nearby smartphone. The capsule can also carry sensors that monitor the gastric environment and transmit that information wirelessly.
As it has to withstand the acidic environment of the stomach, the researchers decided to print the pill in 3D. This approach allowed them to easily incorporate all of the various components carried by the capsule, and to build the capsule from alternating layers of stiff and flexible polymers. The current version is powered by a small silver oxide battery, but the scientists are exploring ways to replace it with other power sources to prolong its life, such as an external antenna or even stomach acid.
The team is optimistic that the limited range of Bluetooth connectivity will protect the capsule from unwanted connections or tampering, easing security and privacy fears.
MIT isn't the only group studying this technology. In Australia, researchers have been working to develop ingestible sensors, designed to monitor gas biomarkers in the gut and transfer the data they produce to mobile devices. They may not be quite ready for commercial release, but these smart capsules have already been put through an early trial in 26 healthy individuals to show their safety and efficacy.
Although MIT has limited trials of its wireless pill to pigs for now, it expects to start testing it in human patients within two years. For many, this could be a hard pill to swallow.