9 Examples of Digital Medication and Smart Pills
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Time flies when you’re having fun, and we realized that it’s been over four years since we first wrote about a company named Proteus Digital Health which has now grown up to become a beautiful, mature unicorn. It’s actually been a unicorn since 2014, and most recently made news with the world’s first FDA approved digital medicine, a pill called Abilify MyCite, that contains a sensor that digitally tracks if patients have ingested their medication. Since this sets a new precedent, it shouldn’t be long before we see all kinds of electronically enabled medications flooding the market, which may be just what the doctor ordered for America’s first world problem of prescription drug abuse.
There are far too many terms floating around like “smart medicine” or “digital health” so we decided to dig into some companies out there that are building anything with ingestible electronics that you can swallow in pill form. Remember those futuristic stories about nanobots cruising through your veins and sorting you out? We found at least nine companies doing everything from prescription adherence to capsule endoscopies using digital medication and smart pills.
Founded in 2001, Silicon Valley startup Proteus Digital Health is all grown up now having taken in around $422 million of debt and equity from some big name investors like Oracle Corporation, Novartis, and The Carlyle Group. The premise of what they’re building is around “medication adherence”, something that refers to the fact that most grown adults don’t take prescribed medications properly. How big of a problem is this? According to Proteus, medication non-adherence costs the U.S. more than $290 billion annually in “uncontrolled health conditions, excess hospitalizations, emergency room visits and office visits”.
As we said earlier, Proteus technology has been used in the world’s first FDA approved digital medicine which contains a small sensor that doesn’t have a battery but instead uses your body to power itself. Reuters did a great job of explaining the whole thing so we don’t have to:
The newly approved drug that contains Proteus sensors is used for the treatment of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, something which should make it pretty apparent as to why this was a priority for a viable “medication adherence” technology.
Proteus is spending some of their funding conducting studies like this one that provides evidence that their digital medicine platform provides better patient outcomes for type 2 diabetes patients, of which there are around 30 million in the U.S. alone, thanks in part to America’s obesity epidemic. Of course, that’s nothing when compared to America’s prescription drug abuse epidemic, which seems like the one of the top application possibilities for “medication adherence” technology. But why stop there, when in fact 50% of all medications prescribed are taken improperly. That’s where that $290 billion number comes from.
Back in summer of last year, the CEO of Proteus was quoted by the San Franscico Chronicle as saying “we’re the only company in the world that can do this”, which is even more likely to be true when you see that a possible competing solution for medication adherence has crashed and burned. Based on their recent bankruptcy filing, Medmetrics is one company that Proteus won’t have to worry about. The idea behind Medmetrics was to have people swallow a pill that dispensed doses over time in a controlled fashion. The product brochure talked about how “The IntelliCap® is a swallowable single-use capsule that contains a microprocessor-controlled drug delivery system. This allows the creation of practically any delivery profile”. While this product would have also helped with medication adherence, it doesn’t appear to have had much traction. A German company called Evonik seems to have ownership over the Intellicap now, but they may be too busy trying to operate one of the largest specialty chemicals companies in the world.
While not exactly in pill form, this interesting company exists to remind us that taking medicine “in pill form” isn’t exactly the direction digital medication might take. We first wrote about this startup back in 2014 before they changed their name from “MicroCHIPS” to “Microchips Biotech” which seems much more indicative of the direction they’re taking. With $57.8 million in funding from investors like Medtronic and Novartis, they’ve set out to develop a “self-contained hermetically-sealed drug delivery device that is easy to implant and remove in a physician’s office setting that can store 100’s of therapeutic doses over months and years, and release each dose at precise times“.
The startup hasn’t issued one press release since June of 2015 when they announced a partnership with Israeli pharma giant Teva (the world’s largest generic medicines producer) which was also the same time they closed their last round of funding taken so far.
Smart Pills for Capsule Endoscopies
Now before we get into this next part, we’re going to give you some background that might come in useful, especially if you’re not over 40 years of age. You may have heard of a colonoscopy and wondered how it differed from an endoscopy. Or you might not have ever heard either terms so we’ll sort you out. An endoscopy is when a doctor sticks a tube down your throat to see isht and a colonoscopy is when he sticks the tube up another place where he’s likely to see a whole lot more isht. In either case, it sucks to have someone sticking tubes in you so why not just swallow a camera instead and get a look at everything in one go? People in the medical world call these devices “capsule endoscopies”, and they’re not all that new.
One reason to invest in large dividend growth stocks is because these big companies can often afford to let new innovations play out in the marketplace before acquiring them. Long story short, our next company used to be an Israeli startup called Given Imaging before they were acquired by Covidien, who was then acquired by a $116 billion medical device maker called Medtronic (NYSE:MDT). What Medtronic ended up owning was something called the PillCam COLON Capsule which can be used in place of “invasive colon exams”. Medtronic has since worked on expanding possible uses of the capsule that correspond with expanded FDA approvals like this one. MDT has been a good stock to hold for long-term shareholders, having managed to increase their dividend for 40 straight years now. They’re probably watching this next company quite closely.
Founded in 2005 and based out of Saratoga, California, our next startup has raised around $33 million over the years to develop their capsule colonoscopy platform which is all centered on the CapsoCam Plus, a smart pill which provides a full 360º panoramic lateral view of wherever it is traveling in high resolution. The reason why it is important to have a 360-degree should be fairly obvious when you start to consider the “logistical challenges” of such a camera. Those are well spelled out here:
CapsoVision claims to be “currently working in 70+ countries through strong distribution partners”. They claim “no capital expenditures” so it sounds like they’re selling with a “platform as a service” business model. Currently, in the U.S., CapsoCam Plus is approved for adults only, but late last year it was given CE marking for children ages 2 and above.
We also came across a few other players in the capsule endoscopy market. One was the camera maker Olympus with their “Olympus MAJ-2029 ENDOCAPSULE Recorder Set” which looks about like how it sounds:
Then, of course, we have all the Asians off doing their own thing and probably dominating their respective countries. Korean company IntroMedic has their own capsule endoscopy platform which you can read more about here. Another Chinese company called Chongqing Jinshan Science & Technology is said to hold a majority share of the capsule endoscopy market in China having been the second to market with their capsule endoscopy platform called the OMOM Smart Capsule, the first to enable bi-directional communication (comes in handy for lighting adjustments on the fly). Since capsule endoscopies are said to be cheaper than using tubes, we’re left wondering why they’re not the standard yet. Maybe they are, and it’s just been that long since we last had a check-up? Who knows, but if you want to learn more about this fascinating topic, look no further than a great paper titled “Emerging Issues and Future Developments in Capsule Endoscopy” which also mentions that Medtronic’s PillCam is the “most widely used worldwide”.
Feel the Burn
Another “ingestible electronics” company we came across was privately held HQ Inc. based out of Florida. Their solution is a single-use device known as the “CorTemp® Ingestible Core Body Temperature Sensor” which wirelessly transmits core body temperature as it travels through the digestive tract. The obvious applications would be for athletes during competitive races and perhaps firefighters or anyone else who actively works in extreme environments. Not much indication is given by the company as to whether these are selling like hotcakes or simply just a solution looking for a problem.
The idea of swallowing electronics is hardly novel. Various devices were being prototyped back in the 1950s, well before Given Imaging first introduced capsule endoscopies in 2001. However making improvements upon that idea like Proteus or CapsoVision are doing is where some real potential exists. The falling price of sensors is what we expect will usher in the Internet of Things era we’ve been hearing so much about. Soon, 1,000s of sensors may roam your body providing “big data” that will teach you how to lead a healthier life. These sensors might stay longer than just 24-hours, and even be self-powered for longer periods of time. IEEE Spectrum wrote about how we might extend their lifespans inside us with power being extracted from gut fluids for periods lasting up to a week. In the meantime, it looks like Proteus now has a good shot at transforming many of the world’s medications into digital medications.
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