Introducing the pill that snitches on you

Engineers at the University of Florida add microchip and digestible antenna to pill capsule so that caregivers and family members can be alerted when it's swallowed.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read

It's getting harder and harder to hide from your doctor.

Researchers at the University of Florida today unveiled the tattletale pills, standard pill capsules that come with microchips and digestible antennas to alert caregivers, family members, etc., when the pill has been ingested.

Rizwan Bashirullah holds the antenna-lined capsule. University of Florida

"It is a way to monitor whether your patient is taking their medication in a timely manner," says Rizwan Bashirullah, assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Florida, in the school's news report.

Developed in part to improve medication compliance in clinical trials, where failure to take experimental drugs can skew results, the pill could also improve what the American Heart Association calls the No. 1 problem in treating illness today--that is, failure to take prescription medications correctly.

The pill comprises a white capsule, a label embossed with silvery lines where the antenna lives (printed using ink made of nontoxic, conductive silver nanoparticles), and a microchip about the size of a period.

There remain a few kinks to sort out. At this point, the person taking the pill must wear a small electronic device, which both signals a cell phone or laptop and powers the pill via "imperceptible" bursts of very low-voltage electricity, Bashirullah says. Over time, the carrier's stomach acid breaks down the antenna and the patient passes the microchip.

And then there is the issue of who is swallowing the pills. The pills are not designed to monitor who is taking what, merely that the pill has been ingested. It's like giving someone a drug test and assuming that the urine is truly that person's.

But--at least in artificial human models and cadavers--the pill's communication system works, and simulated stomach acids have been able to break down the antenna. Bashirullah says these tests show that the amount of silver retained in the body is less than what people often receive from tap water.

The researchers are drafting a scholarly paper on their findings, and a University of Florida spin-off company is hoping to develop version 2.0 for FDA testing. The research was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, Convergent Engineering, and the Florida High Tech Corridor Council.