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Feature Stories

Digitized pills, sensors: What might it mean for you?

Digitized pills, sensors: What might it mean for you?

Advances in medical technology can seem like huge science fiction leaps. Take the FDA's summer 2012 approval of an "ingestible sensor" by Proteus Digital Health, Inc. It could bring regular "patch monitoring" to you and your doctor sooner than you think. Previously OK'd in Europe, it's formally called the "Ingestion Event Marker" (IEM).

The size of sand grains, IEMs imbedded in medication react with digestive juices to send signals to a patch, telling exactly when you took each medicine and how much. Data is then whisked to providers via mobile phone apps. IEM sensors also gather and report heart rate, body position, and activity level, among other things. 

A July 30, 2012 Proteus news release announcing FDA OK of IEM testing for use with actual drugs (not just placebos) says, "With patient consent, information is accessible by caregivers and clinicians, helping individuals develop and sustain healthy habits, families make better health choices, and clinicians provide more effective data-driven care."

It may strike some as a "Big Brother" step. But proponents insist doctors would really be doing older patients a favor using IEMs, helping to keep them on their meds since they can often struggle to do it themselves.

Further, directly digitizing pills (in the view of genomics professor Eric Topol at the Scripps Research Institute) comes at just the right moment. "For the first time, in conjunction with our increasingly wireless world, this may become a new standard for significantly aiding chronic disease management." He told a National Public Radio "Science Friday" audience the "digitizing" of every patient will eventually make medical care highly "individualized" since doctors will work with everyone's "own, unique data."

Swiss cows already in the act

In Zollikofen, Switzerland, Red Holstein and Jersey cows on Christian Oesch's farm carry implanted sensors that help tell him when they're in heat. This is helpful these days because it's harder than ever to tell just by observing the cows when it's time to mate,  Oesch tells the New York Times. Too much stress and milk demand are the culprits.

"Now, maybe they calve three times in their lifetimes," he says. "Twenty or 30 years ago, it used to be perhaps five times."

So Oesch uses the trial sensors (scheduled for mass-production in early 2013) to alert his phone when the cows are ready for a bull or artificial insemination. Scientists who collect data on trial heat sensors for cows report a 90 percent success rate.