Forget wearable technology. It may not be too much longer before sensors are actually put inside your body.
It may sound a little bit futuristic and far-fetched, but the reality is that ingestible sensors and implantable chips are already in use and growing.
"We are going to see more sensors everywhere. It's only a matter of time before those migrate under our skin into our bodies," said Peter Eckersley, the lead technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Much like wearable devices, which can capture data about a person's activity levels, sensors inside the body can be used to collect information about what is going on inside a person's body.
"There's going to be a ubiquitous data collection. Right now, the data is coming from the phone and wearable devices, but eventually some will be within our bodies. And having that data available can mean enormous health benefits," Eckersley said.
One of the biggest health advantages of these devices is using the machines to help treat chronic illnesses, said Arna Ionescu, director of product development and user experience at Proteus Biomedical, which is working to make digital medicines.
"The thing about chronic illness it's not something that can be solved at one appointment, it's something that you have to manage and deal with every single day of your life," Ionescu said. "So we are creating tools that can go in peoples' hands and help them deal with those chronic illness."
Proteus, is working with Novartis and Otsuka Pharmaceutical--which have both also invested in the company--to make ingestible digital pills mainstream. The company has already developed ingestible sensors that are FDA approved. The goal is for drug-makers to include the sensors in medicine to collect data that enables physicians to better monitor their patients.
Some information that can be collected from these sensors include how the patient's body reacts to the drug, the patient's dose timing and other physiologic responses like heart rate, activity levels and skin temperature.
While this sort of technology may play a big role in the future of how patients are monitored, it's going to impact how drugs are brought to market more in the near-term.
Ingestible sensors can enable pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs more quickly and cost-efficiently because the devices can provide real-time data about how the medications are working.
Oracle, which has also invested in the company, is using Proteus's technology to give its clinical trial application customers the ability to access real-time data provided by these sensors to help improve clinical trial efficiency.
But with the benefits of data collected by ingestible and implantable sensors also come unprecedented risks, experts say.
"If we could have that continuous information right now, you could tell what your immune system is fighting right now and that's an exciting promise. But it's going to come with a devil's bargain. In order to obtain that data you must first agree to surrender that data," Eckersley said.
One possibility is that the insurance companies will use the data to determine whose premiums will be higher.
In the U.S. health care system, insurance companies and healthcare providers are often fighting about who pays for what. This data stream is going to become entangled in this debate and may be used by insurance companies to determine whose premiums will be higher, he said.
"The real reason people will want them is because they will want access to data about what's going on in their blood and in their immune system," Eckersley said. "But even if it cures some of those illnesses, it's going to leave us with a major privacy headache."
Making sure the data collected by implantable devices is accurate and secure will also be critical as more of these machines come on the network, said Eric Dishman, an Intel fellow and general manager of the company's health and life sciences group.
Dishman said that in a ten-year timeframe he expects one-third of the population will have either a temporary device or another more permanent connected device in their body and the data collected by these machines will need to be protected.
"Growth in this area means more devices on the network and with that means there is going to be the risk of hacking and we have to be ahead of that to keep it from happening," Dishman said. "We are going to save lives, but we need to protect that data first."
Intel is focusing on developing an end-to end solution to ensure that the data is safe and reliable as it travels from the machine inside the body to the cloud and then to a trusted physician, Dishman said.
Eckersley, though, said even protected, encrypted data still always seems to find its way into the hands of those who it isn't intended for and information collected by sensors inside our body probably won't be any different.
"Unfortunately, there just isn't much we can do in today's world to protect ourselves from corporations or governments having access to all of this information like where we go, who we meet with, what we think and what we read. In a connected world, all of this is an open book," Eckersley said. "Sensors in our bodies may just turn into the next phase of this transition."
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