The latest in medical technology: Battery powered pills

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a prototype for edible electronics–battery-powered pills programmed to deliver medication where and when it’s needed within the body. Professor Christopher Bettinger joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss how these smart pills work.


Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a prototype for edible electronics, battery-powered pills programmed to deliver medication where and when it's needed within the body.

How do these smart pills work?

Here with me now to explain is Professor Christopher Bettinger.

So, you have one in your hand.

What is in this pill, and why would I take it?

So, my laboratory focuses on designing new materials for use in smart pills.

And so, ultimately, we want to enable new technologies that can deliver drugs, as you said, to when and where we need them in the GI tract.

And one important component of that is designing materials that are degradable and electronically active, that can enable these new kinds of drug-delivery technologies.

And so what I have here in this pill is essentially a biodegradable current source, so we're able to leverage nontoxic, biodegradable polymers and pigments for use in essentially a power supply that could be used to activate these electronic devices.

So this thing is a power supply.

There is a battery -- the equivalent of -- in here.

And it's gonna do what in my gut?

It's gonna say -- Maybe there's gonna be sensors attached to it as, 'Well, this is exactly what he's trying to treat.

Let's dispense the medicine now'?

Yeah, that's right.

So perhaps this device could administer drugs like a vaccine or a protein therapeutic in a specific location, and it would use sensors to know where that pill is on the GI tract.

Or just heartburn?

That's right.

Could be heartburn.

So, how did you get something that can be a battery but that can dissolve in our body?

'Cause when I think battery, I think acids, and I think things that you should never put in your mouth.

That's right.

And so that's a great point.

So, a lot of the existing electronic devices that are ingestible leverage electronics and battery materials that are designed oftentimes for personal devices like laptops and cellphones, and so we think about designing new materials that are optimized for this new kind of context, this biological context, this medical context.

And so one of our discoveries was that we could actually use pigments from our hair and our skin and our eyes -- melanin pigments as components in these biodegradable batteries.

But how does that work?

So, what melanin pigments do in the body is really shuttle around electrons and move ions, and that's basically what a battery does.

And so we made that connection along the way, and we're able to sort of re-leverage that same process, that biological process, in this synthetic context.

So what makes us different shades of brown are literally the pluses and minuses of batteries.

That's right. That's right.

So it's a good example of sort of bio-inspired materials design, where we take materials that nature has optimized over millennia of evolutionary forces and just kind of redirect that capacity in some interesting new technological application.

So, how long till a patient actually gets one of these pills?

Yeah, that's a great question.

So, we are excited about this prospect because an orally delivered device can perhaps obviate many of the typical regulatory constraints that might be facing, let's say, an implantable device, right?

So there's an intrinsic, chronic nature to an implant that an ingestible device would be able to sort of skirt around essentially, right?

And so because of that, we think there's more latitude in new kinds of materials and new kinds of devices that can be approved, so it can be more efficient in terms of navigating that regulatory pathway.

So we think that, conceivably, within 5 to 10 years, that there could be smart pills that are enabled by biodegradable batteries maybe on the shelf of your local pharmacy.

Are there other things that biodegradable batteries could work in?

Yeah, so that's a great question.

We think that there are other opportunities for degradable batteries, for example, like environmentally disposable electronic devices could leverage these, as well.

But we are most excited about medical applications and specifically orally deliverable electronic devices because these batteries, again, they're not designed for performance and cost.

They're designed mainly for reduced toxicity, reduced risk to the patient.

All right, Christopher Bettinger, Carnegie Mellon University.

Thanks so much.