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Smart Pill Reports Back

A new smart pill could let doctors know when patients have taken their medicine.
April 7, 2010

The medicine cabinet of the future could help make sure patients take their medications on time via a myriad of smart technologies. There are already pill bottles that wirelessly report to a computer when a cap has been opened, and devices for automatically dispensing medicine at the right time, and for reminding patients to take their meds.

Pill police: This capsule, which wraps around a standard pill capsule, includes a microchip and a tiny antenna etched from silver ink to track when and if the pill was taken.

Now researchers at the University of Florida have engineered a smart pill with a tiny antenna and microchip that could signal when it has made it into a patient’s stomach–reporting to a cell phone or computer that she has taken her medicine. Their design is the latest of several high-tech pill-reporting efforts to improve patient adherence and provide accurate reporting.

The prototype pill is composed of a standard pill capsule, wrapped in a thin label etched in silver nano-ink, comprising an antenna. The team also outfitted the label with a tiny microchip, which can be loaded with sensors to detect measurements like body temperature or pH levels. Both the antenna and microchip communicate with an external transmitter, which researchers say could be fashioned into a wearable device such as a wristband. The transmitter sends low frequency pulses into the body; the pill’s antenna tunes into the transmitter’s specific frequency, and sends pulses back, along with data collected from the microchip, potentially including the time when the patient ingested the pill, and the type of pill taken.

Daniel Touchette, assistant professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, studies the use of technology to improve patient compliance. “With tuberculosis or mental illness, where you want to make sure they’re taking the meds, this system would make sure people are taking their meds, and potentially cut down on nursing time,” says Touchette, who was not involved in the research.

Such smart pills could also help pharmaceutical companies test new drugs. Currently, the main way companies can keep track of whether subjects take a given drug or placebo is through patient diaries, which can be easily doctored to skew a drug trial’s results. To counter this, companies test the drug on very large populations of subjects in order to get statistically relevant results, which can get expensive.

Rizwan Bashirullah, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Florida, says pills that report back when ingested could significantly improve a drug trial’s accuracy, and potentially cut costs. He and his colleagues have spun off a company, eTect, to further develop the smart pill system and market it to pharmaceutical companies.

“The vision for this would be to create something you could stick on a capsule on a large scale manufacturing basis,” says Bashirullah. “The same way you do a label on a Tylenol pill, we’re envisioning a printing system where they print thousand of pills a second.”

Bashirullah says one big advantage of the smart pill is that it doesn’t require an onboard battery. Instead, the pill’s antenna picks up the transmitter’s low frequency energy. The team has so far tested the smart pill in models that simulate the electrical properties of a human body. They were able to find a low frequency signal that elicited a response from the pill’s antenna within a few milliseconds.

Maysam Ghovanloo, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, has designed a similar smart pill that contains a tiny magnet. A magnetic necklace worn by a patient creates a magnetic field only when it detects the magnetized pill in the digestive tract. And a company called Proteus Biomedical has designed a smart pill tagged with a chemical that reacts with stomach acid to produce an electrical signal that can be transmitted to an external receiver.

Ghovanloo says both these competing designs employ relatively passive external receivers. “The burden is on the pill to announce and identify itself,” says Ghovanloo. In contrast, the University of Florida’s design relies more on the external transmitter to send signals, searching for the presence of a pill.

“The question is, how much energy can you store in that wristwatch to be sufficient,” says Ghovanloo. “If they resolve that issue, the advantage would be the simplicity and small size of the pill.”

As a power solution, Bashirullah says the system could be paired with other technologies, such as automated reminders from cellphones that could momentarily turn on the external transmitter to search for the presence of a pill.

“It has to be integrated with other technologies,” says Bashirullah. “There’s certainly going to be power constraints, and that’s something we’re looking at now.”

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