As a doctor, George Savage had the power to save lives, but part of his job still made him feel helpless: After patients left the hospital, he had no way of knowing if they were taking their medications. According to the World Health Organization, patients fail to use their prescriptions properly at least half the time.
It was a former grad-school housemate, Andrew Thompson, who brought Savage a solution. While perusing vendors at an American Heart Association meeting in 2004, Thompson noticed a glut of technology demonstrations on the device side, but a dearth on the drug side. “The only tech on display was a cappuccino machine,” he says. Inspired, the pair set to work with electrical engineer Mark Zdeblick to digitize medicine. Their Proteus Digital Health Feedback System, a blend of MEMS and wireless data transfer, could take the guesswork out of drug delivery for good.
It took the team seven years to create the centerpiece of the Feedback System, a pill that doubles as a radio. “The biggest question was, What types of materials would the FDA allow us to use?” Zdeblick says. “So we decided to use [ones from] a vitamin.” Small amounts of copper and magnesium conduct enough electricity (1.5 volts) to power a one-millimeter chip. When a pill containing the chip hits the stomach, the metals interact with stomach fluid to generate a current. The current transmits to a 2.5-inch patch on the patient’s torso, which relays the signal as binary code to his phone over Bluetooth. An app will determine the pill’s serial number, manufacturer, and ingredients, and saves that data to the cloud. Doctors will eventually be able to set up automatic alerts when adherence problems arise.
The FDA approved a placebo-based version of the Feedback System in July, and the partners now plan to sell it to drugmakers. Savage, who’s worked in medical technology for more than 20 years, says the best applications will be conditions where missing a few doses can have dangerous consequences, such as schizophrenia and congestive heart failure. Several companies have already invested in the Feedback System, including Novartis, maker of Ritalin and breast-cancer drug Femara. The FDA will need to approve drugs with the chip on a case-by-case basis, so the first ones probably won’t be available for another two years.
But once the system is out, it will also help families better monitor loved ones. Savage says he could have used it this summer; while traveling in Europe after his mother’s knee-replacement surgery, he worried continually about her painkillers. “That’s the kind of thing that a feedback system could hopefully address,” he says. “I’d still be calling her up, but we could spend time talking about what she’s doing in the garden, rather than what she’s doing with her medications.”