Friday, August 3, 2012

The era of digital medicine just got one step closer to reality. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has for the first time approved a digestible device  a sand-particle sized microchip that can be embedded in drugs to monitor patients’ response to treatment, according to a new report in Nature.

The device is currently only approved for use with placebos but Proteus Digital Health, which is developing the technology, hopes approval with other drugs will be forthcoming in the near future. Co-founder and chief medical officer for Proteus George Savage tells Nature the enhanced pills could be used to treat everything from drug-resistant tuberculosis to diabetes.

“The point is not for doctors to castigate people, but to understand how people are responding to treatments,” Savage tells Nature. “This way doctors can prescribe a different dose or a different medicine if they learn that it’s not being taken appropriately.”

So how does this digital pill work? The sensor itself is made of a tiny silicon chip containing trace amounts of magnesium and copper. When a patient swallows it, the pill generates slight voltage which responds to digestive juices. The voltage sends a signal to a patch worn by the patient, which transmits relevant information to a healthcare provider’s mobile device.

If that sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, get ready for a whole new world of healthcare. Nature reports similar technologies in the works include implantable devices that wirelessly inject drugs at pre-specified times and sensors that would deliver a patient’s electrocardiogram to their smartphone.