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How Wireless Drug Delivery Works

Peering Into a Wireless Microchip

Creating a mobile pharmacy within the human body has intrigued researchers and doctors for decades. The idea of using implants and programmable technology for treatments took root in the mid-1970s and early '80s [source: LaVan].

As of 2012, we see a range of products in development that could be wirelessly controlled. Most are small -- only a few centimeters in size. The MicroCHIPS device, for instance, has a programmable chip the size of your fingertip [source: MicroCHIPS]. Other devices that can be controlled wirelessly, like insulin pumps for people with diabetes, are larger and are often connected to the outside of a person's body.

Other parts of wireless drug delivery devices work at the nanoscale, meaning they can be as small as a billionth of a meter [source: Farra]. The tiny reservoirs in the MicroCHIPS implant we mentioned fall into the nanoscale size.

Here's how it works: A patient undergoes minor surgery at the doctor's office to have the device inserted beneath the skin. For MicroCHIPS's trial, the implant took about 20 to 30 minutes and minor anesthesia to put in [source: Farra]. The chip inside the device has an internal clock that can be programmed to release doses at timed intervals. When the device receives a signal, an electrical current travels through the chip, melting a platinum and titanium encasing and breaking open the small compartments that hold the medicine. This process is called electrothermal ablation. Once the encasing breaks down, the premeasured dose is released into the person's body.

In addition, the electrical current can also be controlled through a special radio signal unique to that device. In the small clinical trial done with MicroCHIPS, the implant provided therapy to seven patients for up to four months. Other designs may be able to work for a year or two before doctors need to take them out.

Other ways to control wireless devices could include heat and radiation signals, and potentially body sensors [source: LaVan et al.]. Researchers would like to make devices that can be refilled, while others will need to be surgically removed after use. Wireless devices can be beneficial because they don't need special encasings to make it through the digestive system.

Now that we know more about the tech involved, let's discuss who would benefit from wireless drug delivery.