Would you swallow a computer if a doctor told you to? In a decade or two, that might not even be a weird question: pills with embedded sensors and transmitters are already being used in humans and animals to do everything from making sure people follow medication schedules to hanging out in the stomach, keeping an eye on things.
These smart pills could potentially change the way a lot of our medicine works by helping us monitor our health, targeting drugs, and even replacing invasive procedures. This might not be great news for you if you’re not a big fan of swallowing pills or broadcasting from inside your body, but if an ingestible colonoscopy sounds better to you than the real thing, welcome to the future!
Pills that send notifications when you take them
Everyone wants to be healthy, but most people don’t adhere very well to their medication schedules, which causes quite a few problems and a lot of additional medical expenses. That’s why Proteus, in collaboration with several pharmaceutical companies, has developed a sensor that rides along with the pill into the stomach.
Once there, it sends a notification to a patch worn on the patient’s torso (which also acts as a heart rate, temperature, and step monitor), which relays the information to the patient’s smartphone. With the patient’s consent, that data can be sent to doctors, relatives, or anyone else that might need to know.
This tech has already been used with Abilify and a chemotherapy drug, but is on track to be packaged with about forty more. It’s been shown to be effective in increasing patient engagement and improving outcomes, so, medically speaking, this may be a pill you want to swallow!
Pills that take pictures of your insides
That’s right — it’s a pill equipped with a camera and a light to take snaps of your digestive tract, which it then transmits to a wearable storage device. It’s called the PillCam, and while it hasn’t replaced traditional colonoscopies and endoscopies, as it’s not quite as thorough and can’t actually do anything while it’s in there, it can snap thousands of photos for the twelve hours it’s traversing through your intestines.
Other companies working on different implementations include a company called Check-Cap, which is working on a pill that uses X-rays to create a 3D map of the colon. Another project, Sonopill, being developed by several UK and US universities, uses ultrasound for similar purposes, actually moving the pill around inside the body using an external robot arm and magnets.
Pills that help precisely target drugs
One of the most exciting uses for smart pills is making sure the medicine is delivered at exactly the right place and the right time. A company from the Netherlands, MediMetrics, has developed a device they call IntelliCap, which holds a drug reservoir alongside pH and temperature sensors. When it detects certain conditions, say, elevated temperature or increased acidity, it releases the drug. It is also capable of transmitting this data, which can be used both to assess patients’ internal conditions and trace the movement of the pill.
MIT has also been working on developing a pill that, once in the stomach, extends two arms, making a Y-shape that enables it to remain in the stomach for up to a month. What the pill actually carries can vary, but tests have shown it to be capable of transmitting temperature data and timed drug releases. Other sensors could also transmit continuous data for the pill’s month-long lifespan or automatically release drugs based on body conditions or external instructions.
Pills that monitor your health
While several of the above examples also fit into this category, there are several smart pills specifically focused on gathering and sending back data about your internal health. One of the first versions of this, HQ Inc’s CorTemp, was developed by NASA and Johns Hopkins University in 1988 and has been used by astronauts, athletes (notably several NFL teams and Olympic athletes), firefighters, and others who need continuous temperature monitoring.
Another pill, the Atmo Gas Capsule from Atmo Biosciences, promises to transmit accurate measurements of the gases in your stomach, like hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide, which can provide an accurate picture of gut health. The pills were even able to pick up on changes in a diet’s fiber content, and given the low invasiveness and minimal preparation required, it could become a standard part of any GI checkup.
A pill that shakes up your insides
Okay, hear me out: a pill that makes its way to your large intestine, starts vibrating, and helps you poop. Yes, it sounds a little bit like an idea a six-year-old might come up with, but it’s 100% real and being developed by a company called, appropriately, Vibrant. It’s been tested and actually works to relieve constipation by stimulating muscle movement in the large intestine.
Will smart pills replace dumb pills?
While the pills we currently take might start coming with a few more sensors on them to track your adherence and response, or even to time the dosages, many of the innovations above seem to show that diagnostic technology is likely to benefit even more from smart pill technology.
Non-electronic pills capable of injecting drugs directly into the stomach lining are also starting to change what kinds of medicine can be administered via pill, so needlephobes also have something to celebrate here! In time, we might even develop robots in pill form that can carry out repairs and surgery which, while it sounds freaky, really isn’t that much worse than having a bunch of doctors slice you open and manhandle your organs, is it?
Image credits: PillCam SB3 Capsule, A Quick View of Digimeds Proteus Digital Health, Vibrating capsule signals breakthrough in treating constipation, IntelliCap Electronic Capsule, Sonopill, MIT Ingestible Capsule, Atmo Gas Capsule