Edible electronics could be providing medical treatments in five years

Safe, consumable electronics, such as those powered by the charged ions within our digestive tracts, could be used in “smart pills” that can sense problems in your intestines and actively release the appropriate drugs.

That is the vision of Christopher Bettinger of Carnegie Mellon University, who writes of the challenges and potential of edible electronics in the latest issue of Trends in Biotechnology on September 21, presents a vision for creating

“The primary risk is the intrinsic toxicity of these materials, for example, if the battery gets mechanically lodged in the gastrointestinal tract – but that’s a known risk,” he writes. 

“In fact, there is very little unknown risk in these kinds of devices,” the materials science and engineering professor says. “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.”

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.

Bettinger is exploring how minerals in a healthy diet, or even pigments from the skin or eye, could be used in bioelectronics.

“There are many rapid advances in materials, inventions, and discoveries that can be brought to bear on medical 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 five-10 years.”

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