Hear neurosurgeon and immunologist Kevin Tracey talk about a relatively new field of medicine called bioelectronics. You may have heard about the contact lens that can monitor glucose levels. Now, there are an increasing number of ways technological gadgets can be used to not only monitor but modulate human physiology at a more sophisticated level than a cardiac defibrillator.
A large amount of funding is going into this new research area, so it’s good to know more about it! And being a former employee, it’s nice to see that GSK has had a head start in the field, setting up a $50 million investment fund and collaborating with more than 50 research groups. Commitment to the field was evident when they announced last month the formation of a new company called Galvani Bioelectronics in partnership with Verily, former Alphabet company i.e. Google Life Sciences. Galvani will focus on using miniaturized implantable devices to stimulate peripheral nerves, modulating neural circuits that may have therapeutic effects on chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and diabetes.
Government organizations are also expressing interest as the NIH committed $248 million over a 7 year program called SPARC – stimulating peripheral activity to relieve conditions – which focuses mostly on mapping and elucidating the function of neural pathways and improving the interface between electrodes and nerves.
DARPA has also put in $60 million in a program called ElectRx that seeks to map neural circuits with the goal of using electricity to treat inflammation and mental health diseases, particularly post-traumatic stress. They’ve recently started a new program called “Targeted Neuroplasticity Training” to see how peripheral stimulation can improve learning ability – couldn’t we all use some of that!
On top of that, two large research centers are being set up studying bioelectronics, one at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and another at the Feinstein Institute in New York, the latter receiving up to $650 million in funding.
There’s probably a long way to go before we truly understand the intricacies of our human nervous system and whether we can harness it to our advantage. But this is an amazing time where we have the tools to try to make it happen.
Waltz, E. (2016). A spark at the periphery. Nat Biotech, 34(9), 904–908. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nbt.3667