Electronic Pills Require Digestible Batteries & Might Change The Face Of Modern Medicine

Imagine receiving medical treatment via tiny electronic pills, armed with circuits and sensors, powered by edible batteries, able to detect when the body needs medication, and then dispense it: Such things seem like only distant possibilities, as far off and fantastic as flying cars, transporters, and invisibility cloaks (Oh, wait…). And yet, according to a new paper in Trends in Biotechnology, digestible electronic pills could be a reality within the next five to ten years. Five to ten years! Friends, we are officially living in a science fiction novel.

According to the paper’s author, Christopher Bettinger, the idea of ingestible electronic medical devices has been around since the 1970s, and there are currently ones in use. For example, cameras that can be swallowed are sometimes used for gastrointestinal surgeries, and there are sensors that can be ingested to find out how the body breaks down medications. However, the problem with previous attempts at edible electronics is that much of the stuff that usually goes into electronics is not good for the human body. Bettinger, who is a professor in materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, said in a press release,

The primary risk is the intrinsic toxicity of these materials, for example, if the battery gets mechanically lodged in the gastrointestinal tract — but that's a known risk. In fact, there is very little unknown risk in these kinds of devices.

Rather than use traditional batteries, Bettinger’s research proposes using the body’s natural chemicals, such as the melanin found in hair and eyes, to power medical devices. By using biodegradable materials, scientists could avoid the problem of toxic devices becoming trapped in the body. Bettinger explained to Motherboard,

We want to use flexible elastomer (a stretchy polymer network) that can stretch, bend, and degrade. That would have a better chance of passing through your GI tract without getting stuck.

Electronic pills may seem destined only for the very wealthy, but Bettinger suggests that such devices might actually be cost effective. One reason that medications are currently so expensive, he explains, is that only a little bit of the medication someone takes actually gets to where it needs to go. With “smart pills” to ensure that drugs are delivered effectively, drug makers could include smaller amounts of medication.

I know at this point you’re probably wondering, “What’s next? A robot army??” (Actually … maybe?) I think the obvious next step here is to build tiny pill-sized submarines and shrink people so that we can take pleasure cruises through the human body. Because who wants to go to a beach when you can visit the lungs instead? (To be fair, that idea’s been around since 1966).

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