The Future of Medicine Might Be Bioelectronic Implants

Implantable devices to treat chronic diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes are on the way

17 November 2016

Instead of popping prescription pills, patients with chronic diseases will someday be treated with implantable devices that adjust the electrical signals in the nervous system, which connects to nearly every organ in the body. Known as bioelectronic medicine, sometimes referred to as electroceuticals, the implants would provide targeted treatments. And the device would do this with minimal, or even zero, side effects.

Unlike oral drugs that travel through the bloodstream and interact with organs along the way, often causing side effects, electroceuticals could precisely target the medical condition by controlling the neural signals going to a specific organ. The procedure is minimally invasive.

Leading the way in this new form of treatment is one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, GlaxoSmithKline of Brentford, England, which is also involved with the IEEE Brain Initiative.

GSK is currently conducting research on how the treatment will improve conditions that include rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. Google’s life sciences venture, Verily, partnered with GSK in August to help advance the research. The two companies are investing a combined US $700 million over the next seven years to study the treatment, which won’t be available to patients for 10 years.

“Our internal organs are under electrical control, and this means there is potential for treatment that hasn’t been fully developed until now,” says Roy Katso, director of open innovation and funding partnerships at GSK. Katso is the external engagement lead for the company’s work in this area. “Over time, as the efficacy of electroceuticals is proven, implantable devices may either become the standard line of treatment or complement conventional treatments.”

ACTIVITIES UNDERWAY

Despite much optimism about electroceuticals from the health care community, few studies have been conducted to determine their effectiveness in treatments. Moreover, researchers—including those at GSK—still don’t fully understand the body’s electrical pathways, or how to precisely manipulate their currents to treat medical conditions, says Katso.

Others are also in the field. The U.S. National Institutes of Health announced this year it will provide more than $20 million for research into its Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions (SPARC) program. And DARPA received $80 million from the U.S. government for its initiative, ElectRX, to develop bioelectronic treatments for chronic diseases and mental health conditions for active military and veterans.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, have designed an electroceutical neural dust that’s the size of a 1 millimeter cube, or about as big as a large grain of sand. 

Startup NeuSpera Medical of San Jose, Calif., received $8 million from GSK’s venture fund to develop an injectable electroceutical, which could eliminate the need for surgery.

ELECTROCEUTICALS IN PRACTICE

GSK researchers are working to reduce the electroceutical, which could be as large as a pacemaker to about the size of a pill, or even smaller. Katso and his colleagues are testing how small the device needs to be to still deliver optimal treatment. GSK is also analyzing the physiological effects of electroceuticals to better regulate its electrical signals, including the voltage output and duration.

The treatment requires the device to be attached to the nerve or area of the nervous system that affects organs associated with a disease. For people with asthma, the device likely would be attached to a pulmonary nerve to block signals that cause the lungs to constrict.

Beyond electrically stimulating the nerves, electroceuticals could monitor diseases as well. For people with diabetes, the sensor could detect in real time if glucose levels were too high or too low. The device could then modify the nerve impulses that stimulate insulin production in the pancreas.

Electroceuticals also could monitor the progression of a disease, sharing information with the patient’s physician. The devices could be customized for each patient to account for the severity of a disease.

“In the future, we will be talking about bioelectronic medicine the way we talk about pacemakers today,” Katso says. “Those growing up with technology as well as patients with rare conditions may be more accepting of implanting devices in their bodies. However, at some point in the future, will likely take the treatment for granted and will be the norm.”

This article is part of our November 2016 special issue on technologies for the brain.

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