Monday, February 23, 2015

The Incredibe, Edible RFID

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University seem to have settled on the word "ingestible" rather than edible. I kind of recoiled at the idea, but much to my surprise two years ago, the FDA approved an ingestible radio ID tag. Now, while the FDA is not exactly a reputable organization... they are all we have. So it comes as no surprise they they had no comment when Proteus Digital Health was issued patent #7978064 for a "Ingestible device with pharmaceutical product." The abstract is more vague than you'd expect would be allowed.
"A system and a manufacturing process are disclosed in accordance with the present invention that protect an electronic device and allows for placement or combination of the device within a pharmaceutical product or capsule. The system includes circuitry and components that can be placed within certain environments. The device includes an assembly including an electronic unit, a flexible membrane secured to the unit, and a protective coating."
Proteus has been at this since at least 2007. In that year they applied for a patent for a "Controlled activation Ingestible Identifier." Since then they've also filed on some "Ingestible circuitry" a "Body-associated receiver and method " and a "Miniature ingestible device." Most of that work was developed by Hooman Hafezi. You know where this is going. At some point in the future, you are going to eat a teeny tiny radio. More here.

The reason I bring this up today is a press release from Carnegie Mellon University. A research group there is taking some of these patents from Proteus and developing a RFID system that could be inside pills.  These would be embedded with encrypted codes to verify the "provenance and authenticity" of the medication. The idea is interesting, but it does mean that potentially every pill could contain a teeny tiny passive transmitter. Even stranger is imagining your colon full of RFIDs.

Carnegie Mellon alum L. Richard Carley was quick to emphasize that the RFIDs will be teeny tiny. “Think of a grain of salt. A fraction of a millimeter.”  And it's certainly true that some people embed RFIDs in their pets. Some have suggested embedding them in their children based on the same logic. (I think it's nutty but that's me.)  But the purpose of the pills is not just your safety. A UN report form 2003 estimated that the global drug trade is worth an estimated $321.6 billion." While that number may make you think of certain unsavory characters in your neighborhood, pharmaceutical companies just see their competition. So this technology will also be a tool for drug companies to wield against copyright infringement by the black market. It seems awkward for that battle to happen in your colon but apparently the stage is being set.