U. FLORIDA (US)—No more sneaking medicine under the pillow. Engineers have come up with a prototype of a standard pill capsule that includes a tiny microchip and digestible antenna that automatically sends an alert when medicine is ingested.
“It is a way to monitor whether your patient is taking their medication in a timely manner,” says Rizwan Bashirullah, assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Florida.
Such a pill is needed, Bashirullah says, because patients often forget, refuse, or bungle the job of taking their medication, causing or exacerbating medical problems, spurring hospitalizations or expensive medical procedures, and undercutting clinical trials of new drugs.
Patients’ failure to follow prescription regimens is the number one problem in treating illness today, according to the American Heart Association, which says 10 percent of hospital admissions result from patients not following prescription guidelines.
Patients with chronic diseases normally take only about half their prescribed medications. Other studies have found that not taking medication properly results in 218,000 deaths annually.
So-called “medication compliance” is a big problem for clinical trials, Bashirullah explains, because failure to take experiment drugs skews studies’ results or renders them meaningless.
As a result, researchers often require visual confirmation of participants taking pills, an extremely expensive proposition if hundreds or thousands of people are participating in the trials.
“The idea is to use technology to do this in a more seamless, much less expensive way,” Bashirullah says.
Bashirullah and colleagues designed and tested the system with two main components.
One is the pill, a standard white capsule coated with a label embossed with silvery lines. The lines comprise the antenna, which is printed using ink made of nontoxic, conductive silver nanoparticles. The pill also contains a tiny microchip, one about the size of a period.
When a patient takes the pill, it communicates with the second main element of the system: a small electronic device carried or worn by the patient—for now, a stand-alone device, but in the future perhaps built into a watch or cell phone.
The device then signals a cell phone or laptop that the pill has been ingested, in turn informing doctors or family members.
Bashirullah says the pill needs no battery because the device sends it power via imperceptible bursts of extremely low-voltage electricity. The bursts energize the microchip to send signals relayed via the antenna.
Eventually the patient’s stomach acid breaks down the antenna—the microchip is passed through the gastrointestinal tract—but not before the pill confirms its own ingestion.
“The vision of this project has always been that you have an antenna that is biocompatible, and that essentially dissolves a little while after entering the body,” Bashirullah explains.
The pill system has been successfully tested in artificial human models and cadavers. Researchers have also simulated stomach acids to break down the antenna to learn what traces it leaves behind.
Those tests had determined the amount of silver retained in the body is tiny, less than what people often receive from common tap water.
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