If the credo “we are what we eat” is true, then consider this a brave leap forward in the human experience.
The Food and Drug Administration has recently approved the manufacturing of the first digital pill for the United States, marking a radical leap forward in the growing field of technology-driven medicine. The pill, Abilify MyCite, is a carefully designed ingestible pill outfitted with a unique sensor that communicates with a patch worn by the patient. Once taken, the pill transmits data to a smartphone app that then uploads that information to a database for doctors/other specialised personnel to examine.
Micro-computing healthier lifestyles
In addition to serving as a major innovation for the medical community, the pill also marks a huge step forward in micro-computing. The Abilify MyCite is equipped with a sensor roughly the size of a grain of sand, made out of silicon, copper and magnesium (the latter of which is known to help maintain healthy nerve and muscle function). The pill’s digital signal activates once the pill is digested and comes into contact with the patient’s stomach acids.
The digital pill has been the brainchild of Japanese pharmaceutical company Otsuka, and digital service Proteus Digital Health, which was responsible for the building of the digestible sensor after ten years of steady research. Their goal was largely to address the $200 billion elephant in the room: namely the costly and ubiquitous problem of patients incorrectly taking their medication—if they’re taking them at all—causing them to come back into hospitals for repeat treatment and additional hospitalization.
Speaking to the New York Times, Dr. William Shrank, Chief Medical Officer of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s health plan division, said that when patients “don’t adhere to lifestyle or medications that are prescribed for them, there are really substantive consequences that are bad for the patient and very costly.”
Digital savings – both financial and human
The digital pill amounts to more than just the way that we treat illness and handle outpatient care—it could be a leading change in how the industry manages redundancies and finances, making them potentially more able to redistribute money to other departments and facilities.
Additionally, the pill has the potential to provide crucial information that could aid research into future treatments. As of now, the Abilify MyCite is fitted for highly-specialized medication, designed as a drug that treats schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and serves as an add-on treatment for cases of depression. But the data that it collects could be a crucial point in the larger study of disease.
The pill pairs with a patch that the patient wears on their left rib cage, which receives the data that the pill transmits, and records activity levels, heart rate, walking rate and pace, as well as stress levels and sleeping patterns. The patient may grant access to their doctor and up to four individuals—say, children and parents, for example—and has the ability to withhold or revoke access at any time, quelling many privacy concerns that has some labeling the pill as a “biomedical Big Brother.”
The cost of the Abilify pill is still unresolved; Otsuka has stated that it is still in the negotiation phase with insurers regarding cost and coverage. Production of the pill is still contingent on those discussions going the way that many at the company are hoping they will. Despite all the feathers it could potentially ruffle, the pill is itself part of a larger movement towards the fusion of biomedical engineering, portable technology, and human health. It is, in certain instances, the utopian potential of technology nearing full realization. The digital pill may be the size of a grain of sand, but that’s not stopping it from becoming a major milestone.