How Smart Pills Could Change Healthcare

Smart Pills Feature

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.

Iott Smart Pills Proteus
A diagram of how the Proteus system works

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

Smart Pills Pillcam

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.

Smart Pills Sonopill

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

Smart Pills Intellicap
The Intellicap

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.

Smart Pills Mit
MIT’s smart pill design

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. 

Smart Pills Atmo Biosciences
Atmo Gas Capsule

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

Smart Pills Vibrant Process
Vibrant

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

4 comments

  1. In a perfect world, these pills would be a great advance in medicine. However, we do not live in a perfect world. I am sure that governments and companies all over the world are already working on way to use the pills for nefarious purposes having nothing to do with medicine or health.

    “Non-electronic pills capable of injecting drugs directly into the stomach lining”
    The KGB (or any other covert organization) will not have to use sharpened, hollow umbrella tips to deliver the polonium. All they have to do is to surreptitiously slip the subject one these pills. 🙂

    1. Theoretically, if the KGB wanted to poison you they could probably do it with a regular pill too 😀 But yeah, it’s generally a safe assumption that for every significant piece of technology, there’s someone out there working on weaponizing it.

  2. Interestingly enough, I have taken a “smartpill.” This was for diagnostic purposes of my digestive tract. It was not easy, as this thing was bigger than a horse pill, but It worked it out. I had to wear a monitor for it until it “passed.” But it gave them all the details they needed to know that they weren’t able to get in my upper EGD or motility test, so it did the job!

    1. No kidding! Yeah, I was wondering about size, especially for the camera pills–makes sense that they’d be huge. Hopefully they get smaller before I have to take one 😀

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