banner by Paula Lee-Oesterreich and Kayla Conroy

The Robot Inside Us

by Taryn Brechbill

If you were asked to come up with one word to describe all of medical history, what word would you choose? It must be nearly impossible to think of one single word that can seamlessly bring together many aspects of science and medicine. Change? Innovation? If you haven’t guessed already, we’re talking about the pill. As we move further and dive deeper into cutting edge and modern treatments, our little friend is getting some new digital upgrades as well.

Think about all the people you know who take pills. There’s a pretty fair chance that either you or someone you know has taken a pill. From prescription to over-the-counter, these capsules alleviate discomforts and illnesses, from headaches to insomnia and everything in between. Some of the earliest references to pills date back to ancient Egypt in 1500 BC as a form of medication made from bread dough, grease or honey. The ancient Egyptians used these remedies to treat anyone feeling a bit under the weather. It was believed that sickness was caused by the presence of evil spirits within the person. The pills would cleanse the body and drive off the spirits.

Slowly through time, pill manufacturing began to mature and multiply as remedies in the form of a pill were produced to treat food poisoning and pain. Some doctors even coated the pills in silver and gold to help them e slide down patients’ throats. In the 1800s, pills began to take the shape and form that we all recognize today. The invention of the gelatin capsule and compressed tablet form changed the medicinal game. Pills were now easier to produce and could be prescribed in more accurate dosages. These inventions became the pivotal formula for pills for the next 200 years.

Now a new idea has taken its grip on the rule book: digital pills. Sounds like a high tech gadget from “The Jetsons”, right? Well, digital pills are indeed becoming a reality and may be approaching faster than you think. The initial digital pill is a device called Proteus, which can be embedded within regularly ingested tablets. Once swallowed, Proteus transmits a signal that sends data and information to your doctor or health care provider. In September 2015, the FDA approved the first form of digital medication in the bipolar disorder and schizophrenia medication, Abilify. With the patient’s consent, a sensor in a capsule digitally records information and sends a message to the patient and designated professionals. 

So what can the Proteus monitor? As of now, the official Proteus website states that their sensor in Abilify is able to track and measure “actual medication-taking patterns and physiologic response” When the pill is taken and reaches the stomach, the embedded sensor, coated in copper and magnesium, activates is activated by the stomach’s electrolytes. Next, the device time stamps and sends the ingestion information, in addition to the patient’s body angle and activity patterns to a patch worn on the patient’s arm. From there, the patch sends the information to a mobile phone or other Bluetooth devices. Five minutes after ingestion, the pill is naturally dissolved by stomach acid without a trace. No matter what medication the device is embedded in, the procedure stays the same.

It is estimated that 50 percent of patients with chronic diseases do not take their medicines as prescribed which decreases effectiveness. With this average so low, the chances of a patient’s condition worsening are increasingly high especially in patients required to take medication for long periods of time. The CEO of the company that manufactures Abilify, Dr. William H. Carson, hopes that digital medicine will be a welcome advancement to individuals wrestling with a hefty medicinal routine. Not sure if you took your pills this morning? Now you don’t have to backtrack through your entire day trying to remember.

However, it is vital to be aware about some of the consequences that could arise with this type of technology. The Verge, a science magazine, writes that these pills could cause harm or discomfort with patients. Truly, everyone has the right to refuse treatment, but these pills could possibly be a slap on the wrist for those who do not take their medication regularly. Nurses from the University of British Columbia’s School of Nursing voice that their concerns lie with the possibility of third party companies hacking the Proteus system to manufacture a “knock-off” system that won’t work as well as the original. A faulty device may contain metals not suitable for safe consumption and could cause medical problems rather than help them.

CEO and president of Proteus, Andrew Thompson, believes these problems are merely speculations. He claims the technology will be able to reflect each individual’s lifestyle, ordinary choices, and medication methods to create better and healthier behavior for all patients. On the issue of security, the official Proteus website defends their product, saying that patients view their information on a secure software application designed for mobile phones. Doctors and health care providers can view information using secure web portals.

No matter the risks or rewards, these pills are definitely something worth considering. Whether you’ve been taking prescription pills for five years or five days, or whether you’re for or against these digital revolutions, this new breakthrough has the ability to affect many. The way you take medicine may soon be changing. With the help of digital pills, doctors may one day be able to create a precise and accurate dosage of medication tailored to each patient’s personal needs. Possibly, these drugs could eliminate serious side effects or even prevent overdose. Get yourself a big glass of water because we’re about to swallow the future!