Pill-sized Device Tracks Breathing, Heart Rate From Inside the Body

MONDAY, Nov. 20, 2023 (HealthDay News) — A new ‘technopill’ can safely monitor a person’s vital signs from inside their bodies, researchers report.

The vitals-monitoring (VM) Pill works by tracking the small vibrations in the body associated with lungs breathing and the heart beating.

It can detect if a person stops breathing, which gives it the potential to provide real-time information about patients at risk of opioid overdose, researchers report in the Nov. 17 issue of the journal Device.

“The ability to facilitate diagnosis and monitor many conditions without having to go into a hospital can provide patients with easier access to healthcare and support treatment,” said lead researcher Giovanni Traverso, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a gastroenterologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Ingestible devices are easier to use because they don’t require a surgical procedure, unlike implants like pacemakers, researchers noted in background notes.

Many such devices are under development. In one example, doctors have been using pill-sized ingestible cameras to conduct colonoscopies, which usually require sedation in a hospital setting.

“The idea of using an ingestible device is that a physician can prescribe these capsules, and all the patient needs to do is to swallow it,” said co-researcher Benjamin Pless, founder of Celero Systems, a medical device developer based in Massachusetts. “People are accustomed to taking pills, and costs of using ingestible devices are much more affordable than performing traditional medical procedures.”

Researchers tested the VM Pill by placing it in the stomachs of anesthetized pigs. The pigs were then given a dose of fentanyl that caused them to stop breathing, similar to what happens to humans when they overdose.

The pill measured the pigs’ breathing rate and alerted the researchers, who were able to reverse the overdose.

The VM Pill also underwent human testing, swallowed by people who were being evaluated for sleep apnea.

In sleep apnea, breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. It’s a tough condition to diagnose because people have to be observed sleeping in a laboratory, after being hooked up to devices that monitor their vital signs.

“Given our interest in opioid safety, it came to our attention that sleep apnea has a lot of the same symptoms as opioid-induced respiratory depression,” Pless explained in a journal news release.

Ten patients with sleep apnea swallowed the VM Pill at West Virginia University. The device detected when their breathing stopped, and monitored respiration rate with 93% accuracy overall, the researchers said.

The pill also monitored heart rate with at least 96% accuracy, and the device was safely excreted by participants within a few days.

“The accuracy and correlation of these recordings were excellent compared to the clinical gold standard studies we performed in our sleep laboratories,” said co-researcher Ali Rezai, a neuroscientist at the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute at West Virginia University.

“The ability to remotely monitor critical vital signals from patients without wires, leads or need of medical technicians opens the door for monitoring patients in their natural environments versus the clinic or the hospital setting,” Rezai added.

The current version of the VM Pill passes through the body in about a day, but Traverso said modifications could be made that would let it linger for long-term monitoring.

The device also can be upgraded to deliver medications – for example, it could deliver naloxone to someone who is overdosing on opioids.

“In the future, there are many situations, including opioid overdose and other respiratory and cardiac conditions, that could certainly benefit from this ingestible device,” Traverso said.

More information

The Sleep Foundation has more about sleep apnea.

SOURCE: Cell Press, news release, Nov. 17, 2023