Caption: Digital pills can help patients track their opioid use.

Researchers are using sensors in gelatin capsules to help patients track their opioid usage following an injury.

A team from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BHW) are among the first to use digital pills to help track patterns of drug use, which could help patients avoid  addiction to opioids.

The researchers conducted a pilot study of 15 patients who were given a prescription to take oxycodone digital pills as needed following treatment for acute fractures and found that the opioid-naïve patients self-administered opioids to manage pain for only a brief time period and only took a fraction of the pills they were given.

Each volunteer was instructed to take one-to-two 5-mg oxycodone digital pills every six to eight hours as needed for pain with the unused pills returned after seven days.

The team used the eTectRx ID-Cap system, where each pill in the system consists of a unique radiofrequency emitter and a standard gelatin capsule containing an oxycodone tablet.

When the capsule dissolves, the medication is released and chloride ions energize the emitter. Each patient wears an adhesivepatch on their abdomen, which is attached to a cable reader that stores data about pill ingestion.

“As an investigational tool, the digital pill provides a direct measure of opioid ingestion and changes in medication-taking behavior,” senior author Edward Boyer, Ph.D., of the Division of Medical Toxicology within the BWH Department of Emergency Medicine, said in a statement. “This technology may also make it possible for physicians to monitor adherence, identify escalating opioid use patterns that may suggest the development of tolerance or addiction and intervene for a specific medical condition or patient population.”

In total, the digital pill system recorded 112 ingestion events, compared to 134 ingestions based on pill count. However, all missed ingestion events were traced back to two study participants who ingested digital pills without wearing the reader or did not interact with the reader due to severe pain.

The researchers also found that the majority of oxycodone doses were ingested within the first three days after discharge and on average patients ingested only six of the 21 pills they were given.

“It is fascinating to see this technology literally live and in action, especially in light of recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the risk of long-term opioid addiction in patients who have even short courses of oxycodone,” corresponding author Dr. Peter R. Chai, of the BWH Division of Medical Toxicology, said in a statement. “These data are important as we continue to have more careful and directed conversations regarding the expectant management of pain, and the dangers associated with opioid use,” he added.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has already approved the first digital pill for use with the antipsychotic drug Abilify—used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression.

The study was published in Anesthesia & Analgesia.