Digestible batteries needed to power electronic pills

September 21, 2015
Artistic representation of edible electronics. Credit: Christopher J. Bettinger

Imagine a "smart pill" that can sense problems in your intestines and actively release the appropriate drugs. We have the biological understanding to create such a device, but we're still searching for electronic materials (like batteries and circuits) that pose no risk if they get stuck in our bodies. In Trends in Biotechnology on September 21, Christopher Bettinger of Carnegie Mellon University presents a vision for creating safe, consumable electronics, such as those powered by the charged ions within our digestive tracts.

Edible electronic medical devices are not a new idea. Since the 1970s, researchers have been asking people to swallow prototypes that measure temperature and other biomarkers. Currently, there are ingestible cameras for gastrointestinal surgeries as well as sensors attached to medications used to study how drugs are broken down in the body.

"The primary risk is the intrinsic toxicity of these materials, for example, if the battery gets mechanically lodged in the —but that's a known risk. In fact, there is very little unknown risk in these kinds of devices," says Bettinger, a professor in materials science and engineering. "The breakfast you ate this morning is only in your GI tract for about 20 hours—all you need is a battery that can do its job for 20 hours and then, if anything happens, it can just degrade away."

Bettinger and other researchers are exploring how minerals in a healthy diet, or even pigments from the skin or eye, could be used in bioelectronics. Ingestible devices that are used now are powered by off-the-shelf batteries, just like what you'd find in a watch. Bettinger challenges whether a segmented battery is necessary, as the natural liquids within the body can be the electrolytes that move current through the . Labs have already proven that electronics built using this method can disintegrate in water after 2-3 months.

There's also evidence that manufacturing biologically inspired "smart pills" can be cost-effective and pass regulatory approval. Ingestible and even 3D printed pills have been given the green light for patient use in recent years despite their atypical properties. Regarding cost, one of the reasons medications cost so much is that only a small percentage of a pill actually makes it to where it needs to be used in the body. Bettinger argues that if an electronic pill can make better use of expensive medications, then the amount needed for each patient can be reduced.

"There are many rapid advances in materials, inventions, and discoveries that can be brought to bear on problems," Bettinger says. "If we can engineer devices that get the most mileage out of existing drugs, then that is a very attractive value proposition. I believe these devices can be tested in patients within the next 5-10 years."

Explore further: New material opens possibilities for super-long-acting pills

More information: Trends in Biotechnology, Bettinger: "Materials Advances for Next Generation Ingestible Electronic Medical Devices" dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tibtech.2015.07.008

Related Stories

New material opens possibilities for super-long-acting pills

July 28, 2015

Medical devices designed to reside in the stomach have a variety of applications, including prolonged drug delivery, electronic monitoring, and weight-loss intervention. However, these devices, often created with nondegradable ...

Motorola on authentication: We're talking tattoos and pills

June 1, 2013

(Phys.org) —Motorola's CEO Dennis Woodside along with the company's senior vice present for advanced technology took to the All Things Digital stage this week to reveal what they think about the future of passwords—namely, ...

Recommended for you

Scientists develop new theory of molecular evolution

October 23, 2017

Researchers from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and the University College London have developed a new theory of molecular evolution, offering insights into how genes function, how the rates of evolutionary ...

Close up view of growing polymer chain show jump steps

October 20, 2017

(Phys.org)—A team of researchers at Cornell University has devised a means for watching as a polymer chain grows after application of a catalyst. In their paper published in the journal Science, the team explains how they ...

The birth of a new protein

October 20, 2017

A yeast protein that evolved from scratch can fold into a three-dimensional shape—contrary to the general understanding of young proteins—according to new research led by the University of Arizona.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.