Smart pills are here! They improve drug delivery and revolutionise the way doctors diagnose diseases
- Smart capsule delivers medication to the right place, at the right time
- Innovative drug delivery system helps solve medication adherence problems
- Smart pill bottle saves healthcare systems a ton of money
- Sensor-equipped capsule helps diagnose gastrointestinal cancers
- Smart drug provides non-invasive insulin delivery treatment
Imagine receiving a notification on your smartphone that you forgot to take your medicine last evening, or simply swallowing a pill instead of going through a traditional endoscopy procedure. Did you know that recent advances in smart pill technology are already making these things possible? A smart pill can easily be swallowed, making it perfect for applications in drug delivery, diagnosis, and patient monitoring. Although the global smart pills market has experienced promising growth in recent years, it’s now expected to see a decrease in value from $2.5 billion in 2019 to $2.1 billion in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Business Wire, the smart pill market will eventually recover, however, and is predicted to reach a value of $2.9 billion in 2023. The high cost of smart pill manufacturing will however remain the biggest limiting factor to market growth.
Smart capsule delivers medication to the right place, at the right time
Despite high manufacturing costs, a handful of tech startups are accelerating their research and development efforts to bring smart pills to market. One of these startups is the Denver-based Velóce Corporation, which has developed a wirelessly powered ingestible capsule equipped with a microprocessor.
This remotely-controlled edible device, called the SmartTab, is designed to act as a drug delivery and monitoring system. After a patient swallows the SmartTab capsule, it travels to the designated area within the body. When it reaches its destination, the capsule sends a notification to the patient’s smartphone, informing them that the medication is ready to be released. Once the patient has instructed the capsule to release the medication, using a smart device, it travels down through the digestive system until it finally leaves the body.
Robert Niichel, founder and CEO of the company, claims that the SmartTab can improve patient outcomes, reduce side effects, and help healthcare systems save money. Velóce Corporation has already patented the device and completed pre-clinical animal studies. The next step is to start human clinical trials and get the system approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to Niichel, the company also plans to establish partnerships with major pharmaceutical companies and integrate their existing drugs into the SmartTab capsule.
Innovative drug delivery system helps solve medication adherence problems
Unlike the SmartTab, which still needs to go through an extensive FDA review, the ID-CAP System has already gained FDA-approval. Developed by Florida-based company EtectRx, it’s essentially a pill equipped with sensors that can communicate wirelessly with the system outside the patient’s body, eliminating the need for physical contact. The ID-CAP System is designed to verify whether the patient has taken their medication. Once the pill reaches the patient’s stomach, the stomach fluid activates the embedded sensors, which immediately send a message to a smartphone app informing the physician that the drug has been administered.
Medication adherence is a common issue. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2005 revealed that up to 50 per cent of the time, patients don’t take their medication. This not only prolongs the treatment and increases healthcare costs but it also leads to poor health outcomes. In the US, for instance, poor medication adherence is responsible for 10 per cent of hospitalisations and 125,000 deaths. EtectRx’s system will be available by prescription but the company hasn’t revealed yet which medications will be integrated within the system. What is known, however, is that EtectRx has established a partnership with the team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and LGBT healthcare organisation Fenway Health, which aims to explore the use of the ID-CAP System for administering HIV medication.
Smart pill bottle saves healthcare systems a ton of money
Pill Connect is another smart solution designed to tackle the medication adherence issue. Created by Elucid Health, this smart pill bottle is connected to a smartphone app and dispenses the pills in accordance with the patient’s dosage and regimen. The app notifies the patient when it’s time to take the drug and then informs their doctor once the pill has been dispensed. To prevent the patient from taking an accidental double dose, the bottle remains locked outside of the stipulated dosage times.
Elucid Health has also patented a smart dispenser cap that can be attached to any existing medicine bottle and has similar capabilities as the company’s smart pill bottle. A number of pharmaceutical companies have already shown interest in the device, prompting Elucid to start a new trial to determine whether the cap is 100 per cent reliable. Since poor medication adherence contributes to higher healthcare spendings, the company hopes its innovation could help patients and healthcare systems save a great deal of money. According to the UK Department of Health, the National Health Service (NHS) loses over £300 million per year to wasted medicine.
Sensor-equipped capsule helps diagnose gastrointestinal cancers
Besides improving drug delivery, smart pills could also be used to enhance diagnosis and further treatment. SmartCap is a new smart capsule that uses artificial intelligence to diagnose gastrointestinal cancers and bleeding problems faster and with more precision than existing diagnostic methods. Currently in the prototype development stage, the SmartCap is equipped with miniature wireless biosensors capable of detecting and analysing biomarkers that indicate the presence of disease. Using the on-board multispectral sensor array, the capsule can determine hemoglobin concentrations and blood oxygen saturation, as well the location of the cancer in real time, after which it transmits the data to an external device.
Accurate and timely diagnosis is crucial in cancer treatment. About two-thirds of gastrointestinal cancer cases are only detected when it’s already at an advanced stage, which significantly reduces patient survival rates. Early diagnosis could, however, boost the survival rate all the way up to 83 per cent. The University of Saskatchewan (USask) researcher Khan Wahid, who leads the SmartCap’s development team, believes the “new tool could double gastrointestinal cancer survival rates worldwide.”
Smart drug provides non-invasive insulin delivery treatment
Insulin, which is used to control blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, is typically injected by a syringe or an insulin pen, which can cause pain or discomfort. The drug can’t be taken orally, because its components are destroyed in the gastrointestinal tract, preventing the medication from getting into the bloodstream. Thankfully, engineers at MIT, in collaboration with scientists from global healthcare company Novo Nordisk, may have found an attractive alternative delivery option.
The team has designed a smart pill that can carry insulin or other drugs and release them into the bloodstream. The pill is coated with a special polymer that allows it to survive the acidic environment of the gastrointestinal tract. Once it reaches its final destination, the capsule opens to release microneedles that carry insulin. As the needles dissolve, they release the insulin into the bloodstream. The smart pill has already been tested in pigs, and the researchers claim it “was able to load a comparable amount of insulin to that of an injection, enabling fast uptake into the bloodstream after the microneedles were released.”
Demands for better diagnostics and monitoring are driving the adoption of smart pills. As the tech continues to evolve, we can expect to see even more practical and innovative examples of smart pills in diagnosis and drug delivery in the future. A combination of drugs and technologies like sensors, the IoT, and AI, can help patients and their physicians better track medication adherence, diagnose deadly diseases, and provide less invasive treatment alternatives.