Modern cars come with a bevy of dashboard alerts, from the "check engine" light to the low-oil warning. "That's why cars rarely break down," says Andrew Thompson. The human body has no corresponding system, and as a result, "people break down all the time. The tow truck is called the ambulance."
Thompson is trying to create the medical equivalent of a dashboard alert. The chief executive officer and co-founder of Redwood City (Calif.) Proteus Biomedical is developing ingestible chips that can be embedded in pills, turning them into networked, digital drugs. The technology, says Thompson, will reduce the likelihood of a patient missing a dose, which for those with serious conditions can lead to complications or even death.
Thompson, 47, has dubbed his creation the Raisin System. The one-millimeter-square Proteus chip is activated by a patient's stomach fluids and sends a signal to a Band-Aid-size computer worn on the body. The computer uses Bluetooth wireless technology to communicate with the patient's mobile phone, which alerts patients (or their caregivers) when they forget their medicine. The computer, which also has an accelerometer to monitor physical activity and skin sensors to record heart rate, can contact a doctor if health problems develop. The system has been tested in trials for drugs that treat heart failure, hypertension, tuberculosis, and other diseases.
"It's an enormous vision," says Proteus board member Ryan Schwarz, managing director at the Carlyle Group, an investor. Novartis (NVS) and Medtronic (MDT) also are backing the company, which has more than $100 million in funding, says Thompson.
Thompson holds an engineering degree from Cambridge University and an MBA from Stanford and is a founding partner of Spring Ridge Ventures, a venture capital firm focused on the health sector. He came up with the idea for Proteus in 2003, while attending an American Heart Assn. conference. He realized that implantable medical devices such as defibrillators don't track the intake of drugs. Proteus has filed for several hundred patents. Thompson has put the names of each of the company's roughly 100 staffers on foot-high glass containers in the lobby. When employees file for a new patent, they earn a small foam brain to put inside their jar.
Other companies are working on technology similar to the Raisin, but Proteus is one of the closest to market, says Trevor Mundel, global head of development for Novartis. The drug company plans to use the system next year in a trial for a transplant drug, he says.
Raisin-enabled drugs may hit the market as early as 2012. The chips are safe to eat, says Thompson, who has tried them. They're made of small amounts of common elements such as silicon and magnesium. "There's more silicon in a banana," he says.
Engineering at Cambridge; MBA from Stanford
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