Researchers at the University of Florida have combined RFID, microchips and printed nano-particle antennas to make pills that communicate with cell phones or laptops to tell doctors whether patients are taking their medicine. Still a prototype, the inventors hope their tattletale technology can be applied commercially to a range of medications in clinical trials and in treatment of patients with chronic diseases in which it is essential that the doses are taken and taken on time.

The pill is a white capsule with a microchip embedded and with an antenna printed on the outside with ink containing silver nanoparticles. A device worn by the patient energises the microchip via bursts of low-voltage electricity. The chip signal confirms the pill is in the stomach and the device sends a signal that the pill has been swallowed. The messages can go to cell phones or laptops to inform doctors or family members.

The printed antenna dissolves, leaving traces of silver no greater than traces that can be found in tap water. The chip passes through the patient intact and is eliminated through the gastrointestinal tract.

The pill has been tested in models that approximate humans and in cadavers. The researchers used simulated stomach acid to determine that the antennas break down and what residue they leave behind.

Patients frequently forget or refuse to take their medicine, resulting in expensive complications that can endanger health, says Rizwan Bashirullah, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UF who led the research, which was funded by $700,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation, Convergent Engineering and the Florida High Tech Corridor Council.

A UF spinoff company is seeking to develop the next generation of the pill that will be suitable for FDA testing. The researchers have applied for patents on the pills. A university release about the project says that failure to take prescriptions on schedule is the number one problem in treating illness, according to the American Heart Association.