The sci-fi fantasy of curing diseases with microscopic doctor bots is closer than ever. This week, the Food and Drug Administration gave the green light to a new technology that puts microchips in pills to help monitor how your body reacts to medication. Developed by Proteus Digital Health, these “digital pills” consist of millimeter-sized pieces of silicon with trace amounts of copper and magnesium. When you swallow it, the pill react to your stomach acid and sends a signal indicating that documents when you took the medicine to a disposable patch that you wear on your skin. The patch then sends a signal to an iPhone app — of course there’s an iPhone app — that collects data on your heart rate, temperature and body position that your doctor can use to keep track of your progress.
The functionality of the digital pill is pretty simple, but the implications of microchip powered medicine are tremendously powerful. Nanotechnology has long been an object of medical researchers’ desire as these tiny devices could help doctors target problems in unprecedented fashion. The thought of injecting tiny robots capable of zapping cancer cells with little lasers is actually not that far-fetched any more as researchers continue to test the bounds of nanomedicine. (Okay, maybe the bit about the lasers is a little fantastic, but it sounds cool.) “There are so many of these new technologies coming along,” says Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, “it’s going to be a new frontier for rendering care.”
Earlier this year, a team of Harvard researchers successfully built a microscopic robotic device out of DNA that can target specific cells. The idea is that doctors would inject the nanobots directly into the bloodstream, and armed with molecular instructions, the devices could tell cancer cells to self-destruct. Researchers tested the system out on leukemia and lymphoma cells with positive results. The ironic thing about these nanobots, however, is that they’re more natural than they seem. The system is modeled on the body’s own immune system where white blood cells play a similar role but represents a major leap forward since scientists can train them to perform very simple, very specific tasks.
If you really let your imagination go, the bounds of what nanobots and digital pills can do are endless. Futurists imagine that microscopic technology can help doctors do anything from repairing damaged tissue to stopping the aging process. This is all assuming you’re okay filling your body with tiny robots which, let’s face it, is 90 percent awesome and only 10 percent creepy. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
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