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Computer chip makes sure medicine does go down

Canberra Times logo Canberra Times 25/05/2014 Ariana Eunjung Cha
The system is being used to make sure older people take their pills. © Louie Douvis The system is being used to make sure older people take their pills.

Redwood City, California: Each day about 6am, Mary Ellen Snodgrass swallows a computer chip. It's 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.

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 onto the screen."

Ms Snodgrass – a 91-year-old retired schoolteacher who has been trying out the smart pills at the behest of her son, an employee at the company that makes the technology – 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 your body from the inside.

As the size and cost of chip technology has fallen dramatically 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 in real time and in a level of detail that they have never seen before.

Several have been approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration, including a transponder containing a person's medical history that is injected under the skin, a camera pill that can search the colon for tumours, and the technology, made by Proteus Digital Health, that Ms Snodgrass is using. That system is being used to make sure older people take their pills.

Scientists are working on more advanced prototypes. Nanosensors, 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 in a targeted manner 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.

What kind of warnings should users receive about the risks of implanting chip technology inside a body? How will patients be assured that the technology won't be used to compel them to take medications they don't really want to take? Could law enforcement obtain data that would reveal which individuals abuse drugs or sell them on the black market? Could what started as a voluntary experiment be turned into a compulsory government identification program that could erode civil liberties?

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Centre, said he worries about the coercive use of the chips – whether they are implanted for a few months or permanently, or are swallowed and last in the body only about a day.

"There's something very troubling about a chip being placed in a person that they can't remove," he said.

Proponents of the technology, however, say the devices could save countless lives and billions of dollars in unnecessary medical bills.

The ingestible chip that Ms Snodgrass is using is still being tested by a handful of doctors and hospitals, as the company continues to refine its software.

George Savage, a co-founder and chief medical officer of Proteus, said studies show that 50 per cent of patients do not take their medications as prescribed and that allowing doctors to see whether patients actually take the drugs – and their reactions to the medicine – could help them figure out better treatments.

Washington Post

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