New Pill-Sized Sensor Monitors Patient Vitals

Ali Rezai, M.D., holds a Celero Systems VM Pill in his palm
Ali Rezai, M.D., holds a Celero Systems VM Pill in his palm. | Image by West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute

Scientists have created an ingestible pill that can monitor vital signs from within the human body.

This novel device, the VM Pill, was developed by Celero Systems. It reportedly transmits data on respiration and the heart wirelessly from inside the patient’s stomach. It was tested recently in a sleep study conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). They found it offered a promising alternative to traditional, more intrusive health monitoring methods.

The results of the sleep study, which took place at the West Virginia University Medicine Sleep Evaluation Center, were published in Device last week. The 10 participants selected for this first-ever in-human trial swallowed the vitamin-sized capsule and were monitored as they slept. The VM pill is designed to be excreted after one day, and the researchers used radiograph imaging to make sure the device had left the subjects’ bodies in a follow-up two weeks later.

No adverse effects — such as perforations of the intestines — were reported. The VM pill, which works by detecting body vibrations, logged over 57 hours of data. It demonstrated an accuracy of 92.7% and 96.2% when monitoring the subjects’ respiration rate and heart rate, respectively.

The device could revolutionize how sleep disorders like sleep apnea are diagnosed, moving away from overnight stays in sleep labs with cumbersome equipment to a more patient-friendly approach. It also holds promise for managing other health conditions, as it could be modified to allow longer stays inside the body for long-term monitoring.

“The device also has the potential for early detection of changes in respiratory status, whether it’s a result of opiates or other conditions that could be monitored, like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” explained Giovanni Traverso, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and senior author of the study, according to the Medical Device Network.

Alongside being able to detect when an overdose is occurring, the VM Pill has the potential to be upgraded to deliver drugs automatically in response to detected symptoms. The same researchers tested this theory in animal studies, which preceded the in-human sleep study.

Pigs under anesthesia were administered fentanyl — a powerful opioid for which just 2 milligrams can be fatal — to simulate an overdose. The VM Pill successfully detected the cessation of breathing and alerted researchers in real time, showcasing its potential in critical care scenarios. The pigs were given naloxone, which successfully reversed the overdose.

While the opioid crisis led to a record-breaking number of drug-related deaths nationwide last year, a person suffering a non-fatal overdose — which occurs over 300,000 times a year — has a heightened risk of having another one, either fatal or non-fatal, according to studies.

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