Smart pill from MIT monitors and medicates via Bluetooth

A multidisciplinary team from MIT has developed a smart pill that can monitor health from the stomach and release drugs on command using a smartphone app.

smart pill
(Credit: Image courtesy of the researchers)

The 3D-printed pill combines the work of several previous studies that have looked at ingestible technologies to observe and treat disease. Known as a gastric resident electronic (GRE) system, the device unfolds into a Y shape once it reaches the stomach, where it can remain for roughly a month before breaking up and passing through the gut. The base of the Y contains four small compartments for storing medication that can be released over a sustained period as the polymer casing degrades. It’s envisaged that drug delivery could alternatively be controlled by a smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth.

Bluetooth can also be used to communicate data from the GRE’s sensor suite, which monitors the gastric environment. The current paper, published in Advanced Materials Technologies, details how this device was used to monitor temperature, and the team has previously designed sensors that can detect vital signs such as heart rate and breathing rate. Detection range is limited to about an arm’s length, but this is a strength of the system rather than a flaw, according to the researchers.

“The limited connection range is a desirable security enhancement,” said lead author Yong Lin Kong, a former MIT postdoc who is now an assistant professor at the University of Utah. “The self-isolation of wireless signal strength within the user’s physical space could shield the device from unwanted connections, providing a physical isolation for additional security and privacy protection.”

To bring together all of the complex elements required, the researchers decided to 3D print the capsules. This approach also allowed them to build the smart pill from alternating layers of stiff and flexible polymers, which helps it to withstand the acidic environment of the stomach.

“Multimaterials 3D printing is a highly versatile manufacturing technology that can create unique multicomponent architectures and functional devices, which cannot be fabricated with conventional manufacturing techniques,” said Kong. “We can potentially create customised ingestible electronics where the gastric residence period can be tailored based on a specific medical application, which could lead to a personalised diagnostic and treatment that is widely accessible.”

Currently powered by a small silver oxide battery, the MIT team is exploring the possibility of using alternative power sources such as an external antenna or stomach acid. It’s believed the smart pill could be used to diagnose early signs of disease and then respond with the appropriate medication. For example, it could be used to monitor certain people at high risk for infection, such as patients who are receiving chemotherapy or immunosuppressive drugs. If infection is detected, the capsule could begin releasing antibiotics. Or, the device could be designed to release antihistamines when it detects an allergic reaction.

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