When the concept of IoT (Internet of Things) was first floated into the public consciousness, healthcare was the primary and most important potential use case for it. This phenomenon of using advanced technologies to monitor human beings is such a common thought in the public psyche, that we have been visualising all sorts of trackers and implants in fiction, for years now. However, while we imagine more invasive procedures and surgically implanted devices, the reality is a bit more mundane,
Enters the smart pill; a diagnostic and delivery mechanism that consists of miniature sensors, wireless transmission devices and other relevant equipment needed to carry out a host of medical tests and treatment procedures from within the human body. Since there are so many safeties and ethical concerns revolving around such systems, it is only logical to take a closer look at all the implications of such a technology, especially because the FDA and other medical organisations have already begun approving them for public use. So, here is a brief introduction to the custom DIY labs of the future.
The infamous Moore’s law applies to all types of technologies, even those used for medical purposes. As a result, we have been witness to rapid improvements in bio-sensors, which are now small enough to fit inside a single pill. These sensors can accurately collect and transmit different types of data, including but not limited to body imaging, pH levels, chemical reactions, core temperature and much more. This data is instantly transmitted to external devices that can share the results with your physicians, who can be located anywhere on the globe. These sensors are housed in dissolvable bodies and are themselves designed to disintegrate safety if their purpose is to only to report the intake of medication. If the patient requires more consistent monitoring, the pills can be reinforced to last for up to 30 hours in the body, so that they can be passed through, all the sensitive equipment such as cameras and batteries intact. Some carrier pills are even designed to dissolve at specific pH levels, so the intended medicine is only released at pre-determined locations inside the body.
Having such a variety of mechanisms inside such a minute form factor opens up almost unlimited applications for the use of such technologies. But for now, the only ones we can safely consider are those that have been approved for public use. This narrows down the field to a handful of players who are approaching the segment through different use cases. One of the first and most versatile players in this segment is Proteus Digital Health. Their product is called Discover, which consists of an FDA-approved microchip that can be paired with any type of medication, whether during initial production or at pharmacies. The chip records and transmits the pH levels of the patient’s stomach before dissolving along with the pill, thus acting as a wireless attendance record for the medication.
Another company, called Medtronic offers a more stable and single-purpose device called the PillCam COLON. As the name suggests, the pill is actually a camera that replaces the more invasive colonoscopy procedure and provides a much more detailed diagnostic imaging of the gastrointestinal tract. CorTemp is a similar product, from a company called HQ Inc., which replaces the camera with a core body temperature sensor that is used to carry out long-term monitoring for people in active professions, such as athletes, fire-fighters, astronauts etc. The ingestible sensor doesn’t dissolve, just like the PillCam, and can constantly transmit data for around 14-30 hours.
Probably the most complicated offering is a pill called IntelliCap, from a company called Medimetrics. The pill acts as a drug reservoir, which comes with pH and temperature sensors to help locate specific sections of the gastrointestinal tract and release drugs only there itself. Such targeted dispersal is the future of smart medicine and will definitely find use in a lot of treatments.
Even though these devices have passed all the requisite safety tests, there are still certain concerns that need to be addressed when it comes to putting machines inside the human body. The first and foremost are related to the basic safety of the patient, as there is always a possibility that one of these pills could rupture and spill potentially dangerous debris inside the body. Battery chemicals and small lenses can severely damage the delicate insides, as well as open up possibilities of allergies and other adverse reactions to the foreign particles. There is also the concern about the safety of the intimate data. these devices collect about the consumer, and the questions related to the ownership of said data. We already know that modern companies often sell such data to earn a profit. Even if the government steps in and ensures ethical usage of such information, hackers can still get their hands on it, which opens up even further moral and legal implications of the technology.
Last but not least are the ethical issues related to individual rights, and whether people should be monitored on such intimate levels, even if the method doesn’t feel as invasive. A concerning fact is that a lot of mandatory monitoring for medication is done on mental patients, who are already paranoid about being tracked by authority figures. So, these sensors might just add to this feeling of mistrust. Such worries will always pop up when science crosses new horizons, and it is vital to address them not only for the peace of mind of the public but also as a means of ensuring that progress is always sustainable. For now, all we can do is keep an eye on this burgeoning field as it leads us through the emergence of connected healthcare.