Saturday, May 8, 2010

I Can Hear The Conspiracy Theorists Now

Rizwan Bashirullah, a University of Florida assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, holds a pill capsule designed to signal when a patient has swallowed it in this photo taken March 19, 2010. The pill is needed because many patients fail to take their medication, exacerbating medical problems, causing unneeded hospitalizations and leading to an estimated 217,000 deaths annually. Consisting of an antenna made with nontoxic silver nanoparticles and a tiny microchip about the size of a period, the pill works by communicating from inside the body with a stand-alone device worn by the patient. Photo courtesy: Ray Carson, UF News Bureau

There are those who would consider this the thin edge of the wedge when it comes to Big Brother knowing our whereabouts at every minute. Get us to willingly swallow something by telling us it's good for us; and, before we know it, we're a moving dot on a blinking screen monitored by people wearing black suits.

I have to admit that maybe I've inhaled our polluted air once too often; but, I have some serious doubts about this "tattletale pill". Why would I willingly swallow something that's going to rat me out?

In the case of persons with a mental disorder that makes them forgetful, it would a blessing for the doctors and loved ones to receive an alert if the patient has forgotten to take their medications. This way, it becomes possible to make a phone call to remind the patient. I agree.

In the case of patients participating in trials, taking the pills on time is necessary to accurately record the results. Again; if a pill is forgotten, a reminder phone call can be made. Again, I agree.

Sensing a need to confirm that some patients have taken their medications, University of Florida engineering researchers have added a tiny microchip and digestible antenna to a standard pill capsule.

"It is a way to monitor whether your patient is taking their medication in a timely manner," said Rizwan Bashirullah, UF assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering.

The reason put forth for this type of pill being needed is that many patients forget, refuse or make mistakes when taking their medications. This causes or exacerbates their existing medical condition; spurs hospitalizations or expensive medical procedures; and, undercuts clinical trials of new drugs.

The American Heart Association calls patients' failure to follow prescription regimens "the number one problem in treating illness today". Studies have found that patients with chronic diseases normally take about 50% of their prescribed medications. The American Heart Association has found that approximately 10% of hospital admissions result from patients not following the guidelines on their prescriptions. Other studies have found that not taking medication properly results in 218,000 deaths annually.

Failure to comply with medication guidelines is one of the biggest problems facing those running the clinical trials. Bashirullah points out that failure to take the experimental drugs properly usually skews studies' results or renders them meaningless. To keep the results accurate, researchers often require visual confirmation that the pills have been taken. If the study is a large one consisting of hundreds or even thousands of participants, this can become a tremendous expense.

"The idea is to use technology to do this in a more seamless, much less expensive way," Bashirullah said.

The first part of the project is the actual pill itself. The capsule is coated with a label embossed with silvery lines. These lines comprise the antenna which are printed on the capsule using ink made of nontoxic, conductive silver nanoparticles. Inside the pill is the tiny microchip about the size of a period.

The second part of the project is a small electronic device carried or worn by the patient. In its present incarnation, it is a stand-alone device; but, eventually it is hoped that that it can built into a watch or cell phone. The device then signals a cell phone or laptop when the pill has been ingested. The cell phone or laptop then sends a signal to doctors and family members confirming that the pill has been taken.

Bashirullah tells us that the pill needs no battery because the stand-alone device sends the pill power via imperceptible bursts of extremely low-voltage electricity. These bursts of electricity energize the microchip inside the capsule to send signals via the antenna printed on the outside of the capsule. Eventually the patients stomach acid breaks down the antenna (is this really the same as digestible?); and, the microchip passes along with all the other waste your body doesn't want.

"The vision of this project has always been that you have an antenna that is biocompatible, and that essentially dissolves a little while after entering the body," Bashirullah said.

The team is said to have successfully tested the pill system in artificial human models as well as cadavers. I have to wonder how well the artificial human models and cadavers did at dissolving the antenna and microchip in stomach acid before passing the microchip through the digestive tract. However, it would seem the scientists are ahead of me.

Apparently, these researchers have simulated stomach acids in order to watch the progress of the breaking down of the antenna in an effort to determine what traces are left behind. Bashirullah said those tests had determined the amount of silver retained in the body is tiny, less than what people often receive from common tap water. So, what exactly was the role of the artificial human models and cadavers?

The researchers presented their findings at a conference in Japan last year and are currently at work on a scholarly paper about their research. They have applied for patents, and Bashirullah said a UF spinoff company is seeking to develop the next generation of the pill for FDA testing and commercial development. The research was funded by grants totaling about $700,000 from the National Science Foundation, Convergent Engineering and the Florida High Tech Corridor Council.

Via Sciencedaily

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