May 282010

New technology like smart pills, a wireless heart monitor and a robotic surgical assistant could radically reshape patient care

A new generation of medical devices using wireless communications, sophisticated software and data center-driven “cloud” computing promises to deliver health care in ways previously limited to the confines of fancy hospital rooms.

These advances, ranging from edible sensors to cordless heart monitors to robotic arms that mirror a doctor’s movements, presage sharp falls in cost just as consumers clamor for more affordable health care. Around-the-clock tracking through wireless sensors, advanced biochemistry and raw remote computing power to mine and match symptom data with likely causes could help doctors band together to make faster, more correct diagnoses, from wherever they are.

“These developments encapsulate the work of scientists and technologists across many disciplines,” says Gordon Edge, an inventor and former chairman of the Cambridge University–MIT Institute Advisory Board. “It’s the fruit of electronics, computing, basic chemistry and microbiology coming together.”

Smart pill
No advance better reflects this creative collaboration than smart pills, or pills incorporating sensors that send signals and relay vital-stat information after ingestion. At a March conference on innovation hosted in Berkeley, Calif., by The Economist, Proteus Biomedical was singled out for the unconventional materials it uses to make its smart-pill products.

The Redwood City, Calif., company meshes sensors made of materials found in food including copper, magnesium and silicon (traces are in apples and celery) into existing medicines to ensure safe digestion after swallowing and to cut costs by substituting readily available minerals for the more expensive silicon alone. Proteus says its edible sensor—embedded in a pill—would raise the cost of that pill just pennies more when produced in large volumes. The company is targeting medicines in the cardiovascular, diabetes, tuberculosis and psychiatric ailment areas. For now, its sensor could be paired with a pill in many diagnostic areas. (No data is available for the additional cost of comparable pills because this is a new market.)

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