The robot is in: Polymer-coated ‘robotic pills’ may change healthcare

People have long been fascinated with the possibility of shrinking down to miniscule size and going on zany medical adventures inside the human body. Whether it was in the 1966 film "Fantastic Voyage," "The Magic School Bus," or the animated film "Osmosis Jones," we seem to believe we could better control diseases if we just went inside someone's body and made repairs ourselves.

Unfortunately, "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids" is just a touch infeasible. In all likelihood, we will never swim through human capillaries alongside red and white blood cells. But that doesn't mean we can't manufacture devices that can.

"It may soon be possible to prescribe a robot to deliver necessary doses of medicine to patients."

Recent research and inventions indicate it may soon be possible to prescribe a robot – instead of a shot or capsule – to deliver necessary doses of medicine to patients. This isn't to live out some science-fiction fantasy. It's grounded in the hopes of creating less invasive, more effective treatments for patients. While more development and funding remains, the initial results are promising.

Specialized pill uses polymer coating, chemistry to deliver medicine
The latest in 'robot' pills isn't a robot at all, but thanks to its unique composition, it still seems to 'know' exactly what to do, reported The Wall Street Journal. Inventor Mir Imran created a pill that breaks down in a specific manner through the pH balance within the intestines and stomach. Over time, the pill can release medicine in a specific way without any electronic parts.

Here is exactly how the ingenious pill works:

1. After being swallowed, the pill travels through the body until it reaches the small intestine.
2. There, the small intestine's pH balance dissolves the specialized polymer coating of the pill along with a wall that separates citric acid from sodium bicarbonate.
3. When those two chemicals come in contact, they produce carbon dioxide, which inflates a miniature balloon.
4. Attached to the balloon are tiny syringes made of sugar and containing whatever drug is prescribed. The inflated balloon pushes those needles into the intestinal wall, which has no pain receptors.
5. The needles detach from the pill, which passes safely through the body. The needles dissolve over time after they've delivered the dosage to blood vessels in the area.

Imran says early testing showed this technique can impact drug absorption at least as well as syringes can. If so, it would be the first time in 40 years of attempts to successfully deliver drugs like insulin in pill form. Other attempts have run into issues upon reaching the small intestine – the polymer coatings didn't dissolve properly and the pills were subject to aggressive enzymes, ruining the effect. But Imran's pill uses a polymer that dissolves with a pH level of 6.5, specific to the conditions withiin the small intestine.

"[Imran's] engineering-based approach to this is very innovative," Elliott Sigal, former head of R&D at drug maker Bristol-Meyers Squibb Co., told The Wall Street Journal. "He is getting results that I have not seen before. It hasn't been tried in human patients yet, and things do sometimes fail at that level. But if the [trials] data continues, there will be a great deal of pharma interest."

Sigal makes a good point – before the alleged miracle pill gains approval, it must first pass through rigorous testing from an independent testing laboratory to ensure it's totally safe. Additionally, the pill's polymer casing must only break down when it reaches the small intestine – not before or after – meaning extra coating analysis will be necessary. If it can get approval, though, it could revolutionize the industry, says Blake Byers, the Google Ventures general partner who helped fund Imran's project.

"This one really stood out as a huge clinical need," Byers explained to The Wall Street Journal, "$110 billion is spent in the U.S. every year on biologics, all of them injectable."

This is probably not what these robot pills will look like.This is probably not what these robot pills will look like.

Electronic pills provide valuable insight
When it comes to strictly robotic pills, there are still developments to report. Medicine is as much about drug delivery as it is about diagnosis and patient monitoring. Two recent technologies help in each of those categories, providing information that would be difficult or in some cases impossible to gather otherwise.

One device is called the PillCam, and rightfully so – it snaps 18 pictures per second as it travels through the body of the person who ingests it, reported the Daily Mail. How is that a benefit? Because there are currently limited means of actually viewing the insides of a patient, and existing methods are invasive and uncomfortable, like plunging a wiry probe down someone's throat. Additionally, external scans don't provide the whole picture, whereas the PillCam takes actual photographs of internal organs.

Doctors can use these insights to determine if an organ is functioning improperly, has some disease or if there are foreign objects having adverse effects. But another robot pill can help doctors and patients answer other crucial questions.

Proteus Digital Health pioneered a tiny sensor that attaches to the pills it produces, according to eWeek. This device links to a smartphone or wearable technology and can remind patients when to take their medication – a valuable tool for those on heavy doses. Additionally, it can tell doctors when and how much of a medicine was ingested by a patient, in case he or she forgets or is otherwise incapacitated. Such information could end up saving lives.

Medical technology is advancing so rapidly, it's hard to keep track of all the innovations that come about. But the robotic pill is one development to keep an eye on because it could end up having an enourmous effect on the industry in a few short years. Until these systems, our understanding of certain diseases and conditions was limited. Soon, devices like the ones mentioned here will be opening eyes, changing diagnosis procedures and helping patients.