The FDA has approved Abilify MyCite (aripiprazole) as the first drug with a digital tracking system, in a groundbreaking move that ensures patients suffering from mental illness take the medication prescribed to them.

The product was developed by Otsuka, and has been approved for the treatment of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and as an add-on treatment for depression in adults.

The tracking system works thanks to a tiny sensor embedded into the tablet that contains copper, magnesium and silicon – safe ingredients found in many foods.

The sensor is activated upon reaching the stomach, where it begins to report of ingestion.

The resulting signal is detected by a patch worn on the patient’s skin, which syncs with a smart phone app via Bluetooth.

Patients can then use the app to track whether they have taken their medication, and are able to give caregivers or doctors access to the information through an online site.

Cost-saving measure

The treatment has the potential to improve public health, especially in patients with mental illness, who may want to take their medication but forget to do so.

There is also great potential to save healthcare costs, as it is reported is that millions of patients do not take drugs as prescribed.

Experts have estimated that non-adherence to medication costs the US approximately $100 billion per year – mainly because of the need for additional treatment or hospitilization.2

Biomedical big brother?

Although voluntary, the approval comes amid privacy concerns, and there are claims that Abilify is an unusual choice for the first sensor-embedded medicine, because symptoms of schizophrenia and related disorders can frequently include paranoia and delusions.

The cost of treatment, and whether digital pills improve adherence in practice, will greatly affect how widely this technology is used

However, this could well be the first step towards more widespread use, as there are a host of other companies developing digital medication technologies, including visual recognition technology capable of confirming whether a patient has placed a pill on the tongue and swallowed it.