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Electronic Pills May Be the Future of Medicine

Someday your prescription pills may actually be digital devices powered by a battery you eat.

(Read More: How 3D Printers Are Reshaping Medicine )

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are working on edible electronic devices that can be taken to monitor people's health and improve patient care.

"We are basically interested in electronically active medical devices that can perform some functions in the body and that can leave body in an innocuous way," said Christopher Bettinger, an assistant professor in the biomedical engineering department at the university.

These electronic pills could perform functions like targeted drug delivery for certain types of cancer, stimulate damaged tissue, measure biomarkers or monitor gastric problems. But before these pills are actually possible, an edible power source is needed to charge the pills. That's where Bettinger and his fellow researcher Jay Whitacre, a professor of materials science and engineering, come in.

Bettinger and Whitacre have created an edible battery that is taken in the form of a pill that produces the same kind of currency as a regular battery that powers, let's say, a wrist watch. But the pill battery is made entirely of biodegradable material that is already found in the human body.

"Lithium is the workhorse of computer battery, instead of lithium, basically, the idea was to switch that to sodium," Bettinger said.

While the digital pills that can perform varied functions inside the body are still in the works, the edible battery helps pave the way for further development.

"We've shown that we can supply sufficient amounts of currents, and we know other sensors that can work off the same amounts of currents so presumably it can also power these types of sensors as well," Bettinger said.

Bettinger and his fellow researchers are working with the start-up incubator Incubation Works to get their battery pill out of the research stage so that new kinds of digital pills can be developed.

"We try to solve problems, and the way we solve problems is by getting it out to the private sector," Bettinger said.

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