Each morning around 6, Mary Ellen Snodgrass swallows a computer chip. It's embedded in one of her pills and roughly the size of a grain of sand. When it hits her stomach, it transmits a signal to her tablet computer indicating that she has successfully taken her heart and thyroid medications.
"See," said Snodgrass, checking her online profile page. With a few swipes she brings up an hourly timeline of her day with images of white pills marking the times she ingested a chip. "I can see it go in. The pill just jumped onto the screen."
Snodgrass — a 91-year-old retired California schoolteacher who has been trying out the smart pills at the behest of her son, an employee at the company that makes the technology — is at the forefront of what many predict will be a revolution in medicine. As the size and cost of chip technology has fallen dramatically over the past few years, dozens of companies and academic research teams are rushing to make ingestible or implantable chips that will help patients track the condition of their bodies in real time and in a level of detail that they have never seen before.
Several have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, including a transponder containing a person's medical history that is injected under the skin, a camera pill that can search the colon for tumors, and the technology, made by Proteus Digital Health, that Snodgrass is using. That system is being used to make sure older people take their pills; it involves navigating a tablet and wearing a patch, which some patients might find challenging.
Scientists are working on more advanced prototypes. Nanosensors, for example, would live in the bloodstream and send messages to smartphones whenever they saw signs of an infection, an impending heart attack or another issue — essentially serving as early-warning beacons for disease. Armies of tiny robots with legs, propellers, cameras and wireless guidance systems are being developed to diagnose diseases, administer drugs in a targeted manner and even perform surgery.
But while the technology may be within reach, the idea of putting little machines into the human body makes some uncomfortable, and there are numerous uncharted scientific, legal and ethical questions that need to be thought through. What kind of warnings should users receive about the risks of implanting chip technology inside a body, for instance? How will patients be assured that the technology won't be used to compel them to take medications they don't really want to take? Could law enforcement obtain data that would reveal which individuals abuse drugs or sell them on the black market?
Proponents of the technology, however, say the devices could save countless lives and billions of dollars in unnecessary medical bills.
Eric Topol is the director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, California, and has written a book about the digital revolution in health care. He said he believes the science is moving so quickly that many of these gadgets will be ready for commercial use within the next five years.
"The way a car works is that it has sensors and it tells you what's wrong. Why not put the same type of technology in the body? It could warn you weeks or months or even years before something happens," Topol said.
The ingestible chip that Snodgrass is using is still being tested by a handful of doctors and hospitals, as the company continues to refine its software. Proteus officials say they hope to make it more widely available within the next year.