As implants and bio-hacking gain popularity, could tweaking the body's circuits become a mainstay in future medicine?
Bioelectronics offer everything from precise diabetes treatment to appetite reduction. In a world where most of us have a phone glued to our hand at all times, combining 'wetware' with hardware is starting to make real sense.
The wonders of electricity
Some traditionalists may prefer dealing with cells and drug development, but technology is providing us with entirely new toolkit, and changing our approach to therapy with it. Traditional approaches are often clumsy and can have limited success, but miniature electronics address many existing challenges.
Companies and governments are starting to take interest, and pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline is investing heavily in bioelectronics.
"If we look 10 years out, we should have a number of tiny devices—we call them bioelectronic medicines, because they are medicines—that will be treating conditions we use molecular medicines for today. We are quite convinced this can be a class of new therapies."
Enter Electroceuticals: translating the body's electrical language
Most of the body is within striking distance of sensory neurons, and new, so called 'electroceuticals' target these bunches. GSK has even set up a $1 million prize for innovation in the field. The concept of an implant isn't new; pacemakers have been used for years with great success, and deep brain stimulation can work wonders in Parkinson's patients.
The FDA has now approved an implant called the maestro device, which stimulates the vagus nerve to modulate hunger in obese patients. This kind of tech is moving mainstream, and here to stay.
Electroceuticals aren't limited to obesity; they could be used for rheumatoid arthritis, blood pressure and hearing loss. The possibilities are enormous. The area has also peaked the interest of the NIH, who have now dedicated $250 million to the SPARC (Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions) project, which will map the neural circuitry of our organs. The hope is that with more information, stimulating or inhibiting circuitry could have huge therapeutic benefits.
"Everyone wants to use devices to replace drugs. Every cell in the body is within shouting distance of sensory neurons, so in principle bioelectronics have great potential.”
Neurons form intricate webs around the entire body, and tweaking their behaviour can lead to effects some distance away. The longest nerve in the body, the vagus nerve, runs down from the brain into every major organ. In 1998, a team discovered that stimulating the vagus nerve could halt production of inflammatory molecules in the spleen. This has led to hope that the nervous system could be 'hacked', and that the immune system itself could be controlled via electricity. A tiny device implanted by the collarbone which zaps the vagus nerve, created by company SetPoint Medical, has already shown promise in reducing arthritic symptoms. Researchers have also proposed that an electroceutical could help prevent heart failure, by toning down the body's reaction to damage (which often backfires).
A co-operative approach
While some people are pushing for drug replacement, it's likely that a combination of drugs and precise bioelectronic systems will prove more effective then either alone. A union of electronics and biology could reinvent medicine for many conditions.