Open wide: Imec presents medical sensors that you swallow


Ingestible monitoring sensors can collect data inside the body and send it digitally to doctors

From the inside out

Imagine taking a pill that would monitor processes in your body and send the data digitally to your health-care professional? This straight-out-of-science-fiction device was presented at the recent Solid-States Circuit conference in San Francisco by researchers at imec.

The Leuven-based nano-electronic research centre has developed the world’s first millimetre-scale ingestible health monitoring sensor. It is a breakthrough in imec’s goal to realise autonomous ingestible sensors that can measure health parameters such as gut flora and transmit data outside the body in real time.

Digestive processes and gastrointestinal diseases are hard to diagnose, with available procedures, like endoscopies and stool samples, rather uncomfortable and only providing one-time observations. Ingestible health trackers, small enough to be swallowed, could collect information over a longer period of time and transmit the data outside the body.

Smart ingestible pills and implants offer endless possibilities in what can be measured and treated in the body

- Chris Van Hoof

These digitals sensors could also be implanted along the gastrointestinal tract at a specific place that needs to be monitored. “Smart ingestible pills and implants offer endless possibilities in what can be measured and treated in the body,” says Chris Van Hoof of imec. “This trend leverages on the miniaturisation revolution in nanoelectronics, which enables smart, small and lightweight devices with minimal power consumption and maximal patient comfort.”

The development of such devices, he notes, comes with “a specific set of challenges”. A reliable wireless link that can transmit data through multiple layers of tissue is one of them. Imec’s new wireless transceiver supports the medical 400MHz frequency bands used in medical communications services of current early implantable devices.

While ingestible devices may not be available tomorrow, prototypes are on the way, according to imec. “Through our longstanding leadership in microchip technology and in-depth expertise in software and ICT,” says Van Hoof, “we are in an excellent position to develop the necessary building blocks for smart medical implants.”

Photo: Pill-shaped sensors that can be swallowed and tiny implantable sensors are revolutionising diagnostics
©Courtesy imec