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Ingestible pills’ tiny computers monitor your health

Ingestible computers can send data wirelessly.

HQ Inc. via New York Times

Ingestible computers can send data wirelessly.

SAN FRANCISCO — They look like normal pills, oblong and a little smaller than a daily vitamin. But if your physician writes a prescription for these pills in the not-too-distant future, you might hear a new twist on an old cliché: “Take two of these ingestible computers, and they will e-mail me in the morning.”

Although these tiny devices are not yet mainstream, some people are already swallowing them to monitor a range of health issues and wirelessly share this data with a doctor.

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For people in extreme professions, such as space travel, versions of these pills have been used for some time. But in the next year, your family physician may have them in his tool kit.

Inside these pills are tiny sensors and transmitters. You swallow them; the devices go to the stomach and stay intact as they travel through the intestinal tract.

“You will — voluntarily, I might add — take a pill, which you think of as a pill but is in fact a microscopic robot, which will monitor your systems” and wirelessly transmit what is happening, Eric E. Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, said last fall. “If it makes the difference between health and death, you’re going to want this thing.”

One of the pills, by Proteus Digital Health, does not need a battery. The body is the power source. Just as a potato can power a light bulb, Proteus has added magnesium and copper on each side of its tiny sensor, which generates electricity from stomach acids.

As a Proteus pill hits the bottom of the stomach, it sends information to a phone app through a patch worn on the body. The tiny computer tracks medication-taking behaviors — “did Grandma take her pills?” — and monitors how the body is responding to medicine. It also detects movements and rest patterns.

Executives at the company, which raised $62.5 million from investors, think these pills will help patients with physical and neurological problems. People with heart failure-related difficulties could monitor blood flow and body temperature; those with central nervous system issues, including schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease, could take the pills to monitor vital signs. The Food and Drug Administration OK’d Proteus last year.

The CorTemp Ingestible Core Body Temperature Sensor, from HQ Inc., has a built-in battery and transmits real-time body temperature. Firefighters, football players, soldiers, and astronauts have used the device so their employers can ensure they do not overheat. CorTemp began in 2006 as a research collaboration of Johns Hopkins University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Lee Carbonelli, HQ marketing director, said the company hopes in the next year to have a consumer version.

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