A Pill With Brains

Swallow hard: Here’s a nanotech biosensor that will monitor our bodies from the inside.

Innovation: An ingestible, one-use nanotechnology biosensor


Prototype Available: 2005

Back in 1998, aboard the space shuttle Discovery, John Glenn swallowed a pill containing a temperature sensor and a radio transmitter to relay his vital signs to mission control. The problem: That pill was nearly an inch long — and, at $75,000, a bit too pricey to be flushed after use. Now comes nanotechnology that promises an upgrade.

Performance Software Corp., a Phoenix-based software-programming shop, is developing “ad hoc network-centric physiological monitors” — Tic-Tac-sized pills that would monitor everything from core body temperature to hydration levels, chemical toxicities, and more. In the future, the pills could be used with other technologies, such as an external monitor for heart rate, a pressure sensor in the sole of a shoe, or a helmet-mounted infrared camera, to comprise “personal area networks” — systems that aggregate data and transmit it to a central computer.

The company’s proposal, currently waiting on grant funding from the National Institutes of Health, relies on a tiny antenna that could transmit through flesh; a reliable transducer; a circuit board to process the data; a casing that can survive stomach acid; and most challenging of all, a battery strong enough to last the 24- to 78-hour journey, but small and safe enough to swallow.

“The battery represents a double-headed monster,” says Joel Jorgenson, an engineer Performance teamed up with for the project. “There’s the size, which is larger than the electronics themselves. Then there’s the biohazard.” To solve the problem, his team designed in ultralow-power electronics, allowing the sensor to operate on a tiny, weak battery.

Performance hopes to have a prototype running within the next year. It envisions football coaches checking in on overheating players from the sidelines, fire chiefs monitoring firefighters from outside a burning building, army medics scanning soldiers’ vital stats from remote command centers, or physicians collecting information about the body’s chemistry following surgery. The cost: ultimately, perhaps a dollar apiece.