Scientists race to develop microchips to monitor the body's health
Falling microprocessor prices have scientists racing to develop ingestible ways to allow instant checks on welfare of the human body
Early each morning, Mary Ellen Snodgrass swallows a computer chip embedded in one of her pills and roughly the size of a grain of sand. When it hits her stomach, it transmits a signal to her tablet computer indicating that she has successfully taken her heart and thyroid medications.
"See," said Snodgrass, checking her online profile page. With a few swipes she brings up an hourly timeline of her day with images of white pills marking the times she ingested a chip. "I can see it go in. The pill just jumped on to the screen."
Snodgrass, 91 and a retired schoolteacher, has been trying out the smart pills for her son, an employee at the company that makes the technology. She is at the forefront of what many predict will be a revolution in medicine powered by miniature chips, sensors, cameras and robots with the ability to access, analyse and manipulate the body from the inside.
With the size and cost of chip technology having fallen over the past few years, dozens of companies and academic research teams are rushing to make ingestible or implantable chips that will help patients track the condition of their bodies instantly and at a level of detail never seen.
Several have been approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), including a transponder containing a person's medical history to inject under the skin, a camera pill to search the colon for tumours, and the technology, made by Proteus Digital Health, that Snodgrass has been using.
That system is being used to ensure older people take their pills. Scientists are working on more advanced prototypes. Nano-sensors, for example, would live in the bloodstream and send messages to smartphones whenever they saw signs of an infection, an impending heart attack or another issue, essentially serving as early-warning beacons for disease.
Armies of tiny robots with legs, propellers, cameras and wireless guidance systems are being developed to diagnose diseases, administer drugs and even perform surgery.
But while the technology may be within reach, the idea of putting little machines into the human body makes some uncomfortable, and there are numerous uncharted scientific, legal and ethical questions.
In 2002, when silicon chips containing their medical records were injected into some Alzheimer's patients, it was deeply unsettling to privacy advocates. Several US states subsequently outlawed the forced implants, and the technology never took off. Proponents of the technology, however, say the devices could save lives and billions of dollars in medical bills.
Eric Topol, the director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in California, has written a book about the digital revolution in health care. He said he believed the science was moving so quickly that many gadgets would be in commercial use within five years.
"The way a car works is that it has sensors and it tells you what is wrong. Why not put the same type of technology in the body? It could warn you weeks or months or even years before something happens," Topol said.
The ingestible chip that Snodgrass is using was the first smart pill to be approved by the FDA, in 2012, and the European Union, in 2010. It is still being tested by doctors and hospitals, as the company refines its software. Proteus officials say they hope to make it more widely available in a year.
Made entirely of edible ingredients, the one-square-millimetre chip has copper on one side and magnesium on the other, and is activated when it comes into contact with stomach acids. It is used in conjunction with a patch worn on the torso. For five minutes after being swallowed, the chip sends out a code that is picked up by the patch and transferred to a nearby smartphone or tablet computer, where it can be shared via the internet with family members, doctors and the company.
The patch also contains sensors that track temperature, heart rate, movement ( and sleep.
George Savage, a co-founder and chief medical officer of Proteus, said studies showed that 50 per cent of patients did not take medications as prescribed and that allowing checks, and reactions to the medicine, could help develop better treatments.
On a recent weekday, Snodgrass' son, Doug Webb, 62, brought up a webpage with his mother's name and a range of charts and numbers. Snodgrass is in good health for her age and good about taking her medications, but she lives alone. Webb worries that she might accidentally skip some doses as she gets older.
"With all the traffic here, I can only make it down to see her once a week, so this is a way for me to check in on her more often," Webb said.
His mother has been taking the smart pills since December, so Webb knows her schedule well. A few months ago, after Webb's stepfather was diagnosed with colon cancer, Webb could see the effects of that news in his mother's data.
She was sleeping irregularly and sometimes could not get in her daily walk on the golf course near her home because she didn't want to leave his side. One day, she forgot her pills and did not realise it until Webb pointed out a gap in her data.
"Sometimes I see very strange numbers and I'll call her up and ask what's going on," he said.
On this day, Webb could see that his mother has taken pills at 6am and another at 10am. It looked like she had been reading in her chair in the morning as usual and had been active, taking more than 5,000 steps for the day. All in all, he thought, it looked like she had had a good day. But just to make sure, he made it a point to remind himself to call her during his commute home.