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Watching from inside.

Today's implantable microchip devices used for identifying animals are the precursors of devices that may monitor, report on, and even regulate a spectrum of conditions in the bodies of animals and humans.

Ten years ago I looked out my office door and saw one of my lab workers crying quietly at her desk. Arrayed in front of her were the pieces of equipment that then accompanied severe diabetics everywhere: an awkward large meter for measuring her sugar level and a lancet for drawing blood from her fingers. Those old meters required rather large amounts of blood, and the lancets looked like scalpels. If a diabetic's blood sugar level had to be determined many times a day, eventually the person's fingers became so toughened that the process became difficult and painful.

Severe diabetics live with the knowledge that if they cannot accurately determine their blood sugar level, the dose of insulin they give may threaten their life. If too little insulin is injected, all the effects of high blood sugar levels can occur. These include immediate consequences, such as a loss of consciousness, and long-term consequences, such as infections resulting from depressed immune system function, impotence or decreased sex drive in men due to suppressed testosterone levels, and damage to the heart, eyes, and nerves. Conversely, if a diabetic's dose of insulin is too high, it creates a risk of coma from low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia).

The difficulty in finding a usable spot on her fingers--as well as figuring out her blood sugar and calculating her insulin dose--was what distressed my technician. After many unsuccessful blood-drawing attempts, she had given up in frustration and started crying. I tried to comfort her with the realistic hope that within a few years there might well be very small glucose meters that required only tiny amounts of blood. I told her that already the new lancets were very small and not painful at all. I also told her that studies were under way to design implantable microchip devices so that poking holes in diabetics every few hours might become a thing of the past.

Little did I know that years later I would be grateful for the credit-card-sized blood glucose meter I carry everywhere, and for the lancet that is so small I usually cannot feel the puncture that draws blood. I will be even more happy when the implantable microchip blood sugar sensors are perfected so even these small sticks in my fingers two or three times a day will be unnecessary.

Implantable microchip devices offer many exciting possibilities in the fields of medicine and scientific research, as well as for general use involving, for example, credit card numbers or passport identification. As with any technological advance, the potential benefits must be weighed against the potential for abuse. Also, as with some technological advances, the vision of what the technology may be able to do may be exceeding what it actually could do.

Current capabilities

Contrary to rumors at Stanford University that a microchip implanted in Chelsea Clinton's neck broadcasts her location to a satellite, the device's current capabilities are much more primitive. In fact, the majority now in use can only transmit a single alpha-numeric identification number that is unique to the particular animal in which a microchip is implanted. So far, the greatest use of implantable microchips has been for identifying laboratory animals, but other applications--such as identifying farm animals, pets, or exotic animals in zoos--are expanding.

The quick insertion of a microchip into an animal is more humane than other identification methods, such as tattooing a number on it, notching its ear, or branding it. Ail these methods are much more traumatic and disfiguring than inserting a tiny microchip in a matter of seconds.

Devices currently in use to identify animals consist of two units that work together: the implanted microchip and an external reader, which is designed solely for querying the microchip as to its identifying code. Most versions of the implantable microchip cannot be externally programmed to change the code. The microchip itself is a small radio transponder unit that transmits a radio signal carrying a 10-digit identification code back to the external reader whenever it receives on its antenna a radio frequency signal from the reader. These devices became commercially available in the late 1980s and early '90s.

About 2 mm wide and 10-11 mm long (slightly larger than a grain of long-grain rice), implantable microchips are encased in a nonreactive material designed to prevent migration from the site of injection. Inside the plastic coating, the transponder assembly is composed of a coil, which serves as the antenna and is attached to the main chip, plus a thermistor and several support capacitors, which together convert the energy of the incoming radiowave into the approximately 1.5 volts required for transmitting the replying radio signal.

The small transponders fit inside a 12-gauge needle, which is held by a handle with a small rod that pushes the device out the bore of the needle and into place in the animal once the needle has been inserted under the skin.

Since the devices are "powered" solely by receiving the low-frequency radio signal transmitted by the external reader, the strength of the signal and capabilities of the microchip are quite limited. If designers wanted to add more functions to the transponder, they would have to develop new designs that need less voltage to perform the tasks they do now so that the remaining power could be used to generate more functions. Alternatively, to make the chips do more things, new sources of power will be required.

Some new microchip devices can be externally programmed by the user, and some are now capable of giving the temperature of an animal in the laboratory as well as the identification number. This improved capability seems likely to increase the use of implantable chips in what is probably the second-highest use area at this time--identification of pets and sport animals. For example, the branding of high-performance horses would require burning in a brand with a hot iron or an iron cooled in liquid nitrogen (freeze-branding). Both methods are painful and disfiguring. Also, taking the horse's temperature without having to stand right behind it is extremely useful. Standing near the powerful legs of a sick horse while inserting a rectal thermometer is very dangerous if the patient objects.

New uses

The current usefulness of implantable chips is severely limited by the amount of information they can give and the distance at which their signal can be detected. The need for improved chips for diagnosing and treating diseases is great. As previously mentioned, the possibilities these microchips can bring to an improved treatment of diabetes are tremendous. Much of the current research on microchips is to improve their ability to perform diagnostic chemistries from inside the body.

Many laboratories, including the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, are working to improve the capabilities of implantable and external microchip sensors. For example, researchers like Mike Ramsey at Oak Ridge are trying to make a "laboratory on a chip" [see "Tiny Science," THE WORLD & I, December 1995, p. 156]. While improved microchip biochemical laboratories could potentially help treat many diseases, diabetes is the foremost and most likely application. Insulin, which is produced by the pancreatic islet cells, controls the delivery of glucose into all the body cells. Release of insulin has to be balanced against the level of blood sugar at all times. Continuous monitoring of the blood sugar using the current systems is not possible. Therefore, severe exercise can deplete glucose reserves, leaving the person debilitated before the glucose depletion is detected. Fine control of the level of insulin in a diabetic is difficult, so an implantable microchip that could monitor the glucose level and regulate insulin release would be the answer to a diabetic's dream. In reality, at this time these laboratories on chips are still too large to use, or they require too much power or biochemical reagents that must be frequently renewed. To make the chemical laboratories on a chip a reality, much more research and development is needed.

As microchip sophistication advances, these devices will also have the potential to improve the monitoring of cancer. One of the biggest problems right now is constant monitoring of abnormal conditions as a tumor becomes more virulent and may or may not lead to cancer. For example, many men have benign prostatic hyperplasia. Any increase in the number of cells (hyperplasia) increases the chance of cancer developing. Also, many prostatic cancers are not very virulent and should not be treated unless they get worse. At this time, however, we do not have the capability of monitoring the progression of the disease. Removal of the gland or treatment with radiation or chemicals produces severe side effects, and impotence may result. In principle, an implantable microchip could monitor the progression of the disease and only if the severity of the cancer advanced would treatment be initiated. Such an application probably would not be available for some years.

One of the biggest impacts that implantable chips might have is in the area of monitoring the medical status of soldiers. The vast majority of deaths occur on the battlefield. The U.S. Army knows that it can save most of the soldiers who make it to a hospital. An Army medical officer told me that what he really needs to improve the survival of our soldiers "is a Star Trek tricorder' that will give a doctor not on the battlefield an immediate reading of vital information such as blood pressure, temperature, and pulse. This would allow the medics on the field to treat for shock or blood loss right after treatment is ordered by a physician. I do not think that the "tricorder" as he envisioned it--working without any internal aids--is exactly what he will get. What is possible, however, is for every soldier to have an implanted chip that could broadcast this information to a scanner, which could then be up-linked to a satellite and broadcast to a medical unit.

In addition to medical uses, implantable chips could give battlefield commanders better and faster information on the position and status of their troops in the field. Already under development are external microchips that could send a signal to a broadcasting device in a soldier's helmet that would relay medical information on and location of an individual soldier to the battlefield commander via satellite. These external microchips may be miniaturized in the future and become implanted as the technology develops. A device that could monitor the location of the president's daughter with the satellite sending unit outside the body (for example in a Stanford dorm room) is not too far-fetched.

Future possibilities

Many other uses for implantable microchips are already envisioned or under development. All the current manufacturers of these devices, though, deny the development or even plans to develop human applications. However, any marketing manager worth his salary can calculate the financial return if every credit card were replaced with an implanted microchip credit number. I can see in the near future putting my hand over a grocery store sensor that reads my credit chip and automatically debits my account for the purchase. Considering the burdensome number of cards, identifications, and licenses I carry now, I would have no problem with placing my Social Security number, credit access, passport, and driver's license on a microchip implanted in me. There are many other uses for transponder chips produced with today's technology to solve today's problems.

Sensors could now be implanted in a pistol that would allow only the owner to fire it. One controversial technology now available is a transponder that serves as a police officer's ring. If a weapon were grabbed from a police officer, it could not be fired. This type of device could protect the lives of police officers and children from accidental death from firearms. Recently, in one Tennessee county jail a prisoner grabbed a gun from an elderly deputy. Fortunately for the deputy the prisoner did not use the gun to kill him but instead killed himself. The prisoner's death could have been avoided if the gun's firing had been prevented by an external transponder or an implanted microchip.

To date, police officers have resisted using these devices because they are unsure whether they could fire the weapon to protect their own lives when necessary. It is unclear whether there really are problems in the ringmounted transponders' communication with the gun when needed (like the problems in finding my horse's transponder), or whether police officers are just not ready for the new technology. Additionally, the use of the ring transponder could add $300-400 to the price of a handgun. This would be unacceptable for the average gun owner. Until the costs and perhaps justifiable fears over the external gun safety transponders are resolved, implanted microchip transponders for such applications will remain unused.

The great promise of implantable microchips must also be weighed against the potential for abuse. Many Internet sites already decry the microchip as the 666 mark of the beast foretold in the Bible. In fact, at this time the chips are not sophisticated enough to warrant fear of invasion of privacy from within, although a three-digit 666 number is easily done now. If an implantable microchip could tell a remote monitor where a person is, what he is doing, and perhaps even what he is feeling, it could prove useful for monitoring the actions of a repeat sexual offender, but I would not like to see the government putting such a thing into everyday law-abiding citizens. The technological advances in these devices could turn Orwellian fiction into fact very soon.

RELATED ARTICLE: Microchips in My Horse Children

Since my horses are loved as if they were children, it is not the thought of how much money would be lost if they were stolen that concerns me, but rather the emotional trauma on me if they were sold for meat. Therefore, all my animals have a new implanted microchip in their neck that can give not only their number but their name and temperature as well. The numbers on the chips have been sent to a central service that would contact me if any horse's number were detected. Since all horse-meat packing plants are required to scan for the signal from these microchips, I have some small hope that if the "horse children" were stolen and sold for meat they might be returned to me.

Given the present limitations of the technology, however, my hope is really quite small. In my experience, when one of the current microchips is in a large animal like one of my horses, even though I know where the implanted chip is, its signal is so weak that it is easy to miss. The reader device usually has to be right over the chip and in close proximity to the skin. Thus, although it is comforting to think that if one of my horses were stolen some meat-packing-plant employee would call to inform me that he had discovered the chip in my horse's neck as it was on track to be slaughtered, it is not so realistic at this time to expect such a call.

The temperature-reporting function of these new microchips offers me additional benefits. Now I can just sidle up to my horses' necks and read their temperatures. I can get owner appreciation points with my horses by feeding them treats while taking their temperatures, and at the same time I avoid the trauma and danger of taking their temperatures with a rectal thermometer.

Recently, I have thought about having a microchip inserted in my smaller pets. My cats would definitely prefer a microchip to an identification collar, which they would hate. It would be impossible for a cat or dog to lose the chip, whereas they might a collar or some other sort of external tag. However, until pounds and humane societies I become more aware of the possible presence of implanted chips, the chips' potential usefulness in saving the lives of small pets and returning them to their owners will not be realized.

Craig Dees is vice president of research at Photogen Inc., in Knoxville, Tennessee. He has many patents, publications, and awards to his credit. One recent award was given to Dees, and The World & I Natural Science editor Glenn Strait, by the Society for Technical Writing for an article that appeared in The World & I.
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Title Annotation:microchip implantation
Author:Dees, Craig
Publication:World and I
Date:Feb 1, 1998
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