Tiny sensor in pills could save the NHS millions

Professor Lionel Tarassenko CBE FREng FMedSci, from the Department’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering, has been working with colleagues from the Medical Sciences Division on the first UK clinical trials of a ‘texting pill’ that contains a tiny silicon sensor, which triggers the sending of a text to say the pill has been swallowed. This follows a UK study, which found that £300 million a year is spent on medicines that end up being thrown away. Part of the wastage is due to people not taking medication, called ‘non-compliance’.

The ‘texting pill’ informs relatives and doctors that the patient has swallowed the pill. Doctors believe the novel device could save the NHS millions by cutting the amount of medicines that go to waste.

Each of the ‘texting pills’ contains a tiny silicon sensor, the size of a grain of sand, that emits a signal when it is swallowed, with the stomach’s acidity acting as a battery. It then passes harmlessly through the body.

Proteus sensor
Proteus patch

The ‘texting pills’ contain a tiny silicon sensor (pictured left) and a patch on the body transmits messages by Bluetooth technology (seen on the right).

The pill’s signal is picked up by a patch on the body, which transmits the message by wireless Bluetooth technology to the person’s mobile. The phone then texts the patient’s contacts - such as a loved-one and their doctor or nurse - telling them it has been taken.

Lionel Tarassenko CBEProfessor Lionel Tarassenko said: “Elderly people sometimes have to take six, seven, or eight pills a day. If you have an elderly parent who is not taking their pills, you might want to know”.

Lloydspharmacy and Oxford University have been involved in UK pilots of the technology, called Helius, which is being developed by US firm Proteus Digital Health, located in the Bay Area, and with which Professor Tarassenko and his research group have been collaborating for the past two years. Lloydspharmacy has completed a UK pilot with patients who have high blood pressure. They often need to take several medicines a day. The test-run - like others in the US - has involved patients taking an extra ‘dummy pill’, containing just the sensor, in addition to their medication. Proteus soon hopes to embed their tiny sensors in pills containing active drugs.

Proteus Digital Health CEO, Andrew Thomson who trained in the UK as an engineer before doing an MBA at Stanford University, said: “When you swallow one of our digital drugs it will say, ‘Hello I’m here, I’m Novartis, I’m Diovan, 1.2mg, I’m from plant number 76, I’m batch number 12 and I’m pill number two’. The invention could save the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds”.

Professor Tarassenko is planning to start a trial in Oxford next year using the ‘texting pills’ with heart failure patients. So far his trials have been limited to testing the patch itself, which can track and relay other information about the patient such as their pulse, activity levels and sleeping patterns.