Since the 1970s, biomedical engineers have been looking for a way to develop a “smart pill” that can monitor and treat ailments electronically. Since then, breakthroughs such as the camera pill have come about—allowing those in the medical field to perform more complex surgeries and study how drugs are broken down.
While we have biologically understood the concept of edible electronics for some time now, researchers have not been able to nail down the appropriate materials that should be used in such an application as to not cause internal damage.
“Smart Pill” to Sense Problems
Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University are putting fourth their proposal to this question in the journal Trends in Biotechnology, which could yield edible electronic technology that is safe for consumption.
“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,” says Christopher Bettinger, a professor in materials science and engineering and author of the study. “The breakfast you ate this morning is only in your GI tract for about 20 hours—all you need is a battery that can do its job for 20 hours and then, if anything happens, it can just degrade away.”
Digestible Battery to Power Pill
Currently, biomedical devices that are ingested use a typical battery—much like something you’d find in a watch. The new research attempts to drive away from the use of a traditional battery to that of a segmented battery. With a segmented battery, researchers could essentially use the body as part of the battery—utilizing natural liquids in the body that can be the electrolytes that move current though the device.
“There are many rapid advances in materials, inventions, and discoveries that can be brought to bear on medical problems,” Bettinger says. “If we can engineer devices that get the most mileage out of existing drugs, then that is a very attractive value proposition. I believe these devices can be tested in patients within the next 5-10 years.”