In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore predicted that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would double every year. This predication was dubbed “Moore’s Law” and has pretty much held true over the last 50 years. The impact of Moore’s Law has changed the fabric of society. The chip of the device you’re using to read this article is 40 million times smaller and 1,300 times more powerful than the first ENIAC computer. In other words, more for less!
This power-in-a-small-package has made wearable health technology possible. Individuals can now track key health-related attributes like sleep patterns, pulse rate, activity levels, and more. However, over the next 2–3 years, the doubling power of Moore’s Law is going to take healthcare into altogether new territory. Just as we get used to wearables, a powerful wave of swallowable minicomputers is already transforming healthcare. Yes, get ready for ingestibles!
“You will—voluntarily, I might add—take a pill, which you think of as a pill but is in fact a microscopic robot, which will monitor your systems and wirelessly transmit what is happening”, Eric E. Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, said last fall at a company conference. “If it makes the difference between health and death, you’re going to want this thing.”
Simply put: Ingestibles have the power to provide meaningful solutions to many of the challenges confronting the life sciences industry. In fact, serious testing and first iterations of ingestible technology are already underway across the healthcare sector.
The Inside Track on Adherence
Treatment non-adherence costs the US healthcare system more than $100 billion a year, along with unnecessary illness and death. Technologies have been created over the years to try and address this challenge, including talking pill bottles, text reminders, and patient-tracking apps. But ingestibles may prove to be the ultimate answer for adherence. A swallowable sensor made by Proteus Digital Health, a small company in Redwood City, CA, provides a glimpse into what’s already possible. Currently being tested in a clinical trial, each Proteus chip is the size of a grain of rice and is embedded directly in the pill. When it reaches the bottom of the stomach, it sends information to a cellphone app via a patch worn on the body. The result is a time-stamped data point signaling that a pill has been actually taken. This data can be especially useful for tracking patients in chronic disease categories, as well as for monitoring adherence among mental health patients. By connecting from the smartphone app, data can be streamed out onto the cloud and shared with appropriate care-team members.
Transforming Clinical Trials
It costs trial sponsors about $26,000 to pull just one human subject through a phase 3 clinical trial, including obtaining accurate data for the individual. Ingestibles are poised to reduce the costs and improve accuracy of these trials. Proteus has teamed with Oracle on the first clinical trial data capture and management solution to automatically integrate Proteus’ FDA-approved ingestible sensor. “The medication adherence option uniquely addresses the most critical information in a clinical trial: ‘Did the patients use their medicine properly?’ Combining this powerful new data with the technology, analysis, and capabilities of Oracle Health Sciences creates a game-changing opportunity for drug development,” notes Markus Christen, head of global development, Proteus Digital Health.
It’s a Gas, Gas, Gas
Increasingly, medical researchers’ attention has been focusing on the gut, home to a complex brew of microbes and bacteria that may hold the key to many respiratory, intestinal, and skin disorders. Ingestibles may help unlock those answers. Researchers at RMIT University and Monash University in Australia have developed a novel swallowable sensor capable of measuring intestinal gases. The new capsule includes a gas sensor, microelectronics, and a radio transmission system that sends out readings to an external receiver such as a smartphone. The technology has been tested in animals, proving safe and effective in a proof-of-concept study. The capsules were able to continuously sample intestinal gases while beaming results in real-time to a receiving radio outside the body.
Are You Hot, or Not?
A pill called the CorTemp Ingestible Core Body Temperature Sensor, made by HQ Inc. in Palmetto, FL, has a built-in battery and wirelessly transmits real-time body temperature as it travels through a patient. Firefighters, football players, soldiers, and astronauts have used the device so their employers can monitor them and ensure they do not overheat in high temperatures.
Google Takes Personal Search to a Whole New Level
The secretive Google X Labs is reportedly working on ingestible nanoparticles that will enter the bloodstream and attach themselves to cancerous tumor cells, and then report out their location to an Android smartphone. Because cancer causes slight changes in blood biochemistry, these nanoparticles could also enable people to be diagnosed well before any physical symptoms appear. “Every test you ever go to the doctor for will be done through this system,” said Andrew Conrad, head of the Life Sciences team at the Google X research lab. “That is our dream.”
Moore’s Law is not showing any signs of slowing down, so whether we’re ready or not, medical ingestibles are on the way. However, some important questions will need to be resolved before our bodies are filled with the latest computing gear.
- Will patients be comfortable consenting to such detailed tracking?
- Will ingestible healthcare technology prove profitable? If so, for whom?
- Will there be any unanticipated side effects?
- What are the public health and policy implications?
- How will personal data from ingestibles be leveraged?
Like all health tech adoption, these questions will inevitably take time to address. Meanwhile, wearables are here and they are already starting to show great potential from very tiny beginnings. It’s time to think way beyond the pill, and prepare for a data intensive, personalized healthcare experience on a whole new level.
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