An ingestible 3D-printed capsule, that looks more like a drone than a smart pill, has been designed to deliver drugs and sense environmental conditions while residing in the stomach for at least a month.
This customisable electronic capsule, that can relay diagnostic information or release medicine at the touch of a smartphone, has been developed in the US by mechanical engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in conjunction with medical partners.
The research team says the capsules could be deployed to treat a variety of diseases, especially when drugs are required over a long period of time or when a strict regimen is required such as for HIV or malaria.
“Our system could provide closed-loop monitoring and treatment, whereby a signal can help guide the delivery of a drug or tuning the dose of a drug,” Giovanni Traverso, a visiting scientist in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, said (Traverso joins the faculty in 2019).
"These devices could also be used to communicate with other wearable and implantable medical devices, which could pool information to be communicated to the patient’s or doctor’s smartphone."
The device unfolds into a Y-shape after being swallowed, enabling it to remain in the stomach for about a month, before it breaks into smaller pieces and passes through the digestive tract.
"One of these arms includes four small compartments that can be loaded with a variety of drugs," MIT stated.
"These drugs can be packaged within polymers that allow them to be released gradually over several days. The researchers also anticipate that they could design the compartments to be opened remotely through wireless Bluetooth communication."
The device can also carry sensors that monitor the gastric environment and relay information via a wireless signal.
“We can potentially create customised ingestible electronics where the gastric residence period can be tailored based on a specific medical application, which could lead to a personalised diagnostic and treatment that is widely accessible,” the research team said.
The researchers envision that this type of sensor could be used to diagnose early signs of disease and then respond with the appropriate medication. For example, it could be used to monitor people at high risk of infection, such as those receiving chemotherapy or immunosuppressive drugs. If infection is detected, the capsule could begin releasing antibiotics or the device could be designed to release antihistamines when it detects an allergic reaction.
To enable the manufacturing of all these complex elements, 3D printing allows for every component to be incorporated into the capsule. The process also permits the capsule to be constructed from alternating layers of stiff and flexible polymers, which helps it to withstand the acidic environment of the stomach.
The current version of the capsule is powered by a small silver oxide battery, however, the researchers are exploring alternative power sources such as an external antenna or stomach acid.
The researchers are also working on developing other kinds of sensors that could be incorporated into the capsules. In their paper, published in the December 13 issue of Advanced Materials Technologies, the team demonstrated the capsule could be used to monitor temperature and relay that information directly to a smartphone close by.
The team sees this as an enhancement to security and privacy; keeping the wireless signal strength within the user’s physical space shields the device from unwanted connections.