Smart pill tracks sleep apnea and opioid risk

13th December 2023
Sheryl Miles

A smart ingestible electronic device has been developed that promises to be a less intrusive and more efficient way of monitoring vital signs, particularly for patients with sleep apnea and those at risk of opioid overdose.

The device, a collaborative creation by researchers from MIT, Celero Systems, and West Virginia University, has the potential to change the way we diagnose and monitor various health conditions.

Akin to the size of a multivitamin, the device is designed to be swallowed, and it works by measuring the patient's breathing rate and heart rate from within the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It employs an accelerometer to detect minute movements caused by the beating of the heart and the expansion of the lungs. Additionally, it is equipped with two small batteries and a wireless antenna that transmits data to an external device like a laptop. The non-invasive nature of this device is a stark contrast to the traditional methods of diagnosing sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, which typically require an overnight stay in a sleep lab with various sensors and monitors attached to the patient.

In a clinical trial at the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, ten patients were monitored using the ingestible capsule; these patients were also connected to standard sleep monitoring sensors, allowing researchers to compare data from both sources. The findings were promising – demonstrating that the ingestible sensor could accurately measure both breathing rate and heart rate.

Impressively, it detected a sleep apnea episode in one of the patients, a feat that was confirmed by the standard monitoring systems in the sleep lab. Furthermore, the study showed that the capsule could also detect depression in breathing rate caused by opioids like fentanyl.

An important aspect of this study is the safety and comfort of the patients. None of the participants reported any discomfort or adverse effects from the capsule, which harmlessly passed through their digestive tract. Radiographic imaging performed two weeks after ingestion confirmed that the capsules had been safely excreted from the body.

Looking ahead, the researchers at Celero Systems, along with other collaborators, are exploring the possibility of incorporating an overdose reversal agent into the device. This feature could allow for the automatic release of the drug when a person’s breathing rate slows or stops, providing a critical intervention in cases of opioid overdose. They are also investigating ways to prolong the time the capsules can remain in the stomach, enhancing their monitoring capabilities.

This development represents a significant step forward in medical technology, offering a simpler, more comfortable, and potentially life-saving solution for monitoring vital signs and detecting critical health issues like sleep apnea and opioid overdose.

The implications of this technology extend far beyond the current applications, opening avenues for the diagnosis and monitoring of other conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

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