Neuron network, artwork
Neuron network © Getty

Until now the pharmaceutical industry has been based on chemistry and biology. Patients are treated with drugs that work through biochemical interactions with the body’s molecular pathways.

Now GlaxoSmithKline, the UK pharmaceutical company, is pioneering a different approach: so-called bioelectronics, or electroceuticals. These aim to turn our electrical impulses into a mainstay of medical treatment.

Kris Famm, head of bioelectronics research at GSK, says scientists are learning how the electrical language of the body controls human organs in order to provide precision therapies. “What we’ve learnt so far looks very promising,” he says.

The company has established a network of about 50 research collaborations globally and seen remarkable results through animal testing in a range of diseases, Mr Famm says: “We believe a future where clinicians are administering bioelectronic medicines as well as molecular ones is approaching.

“Our next challenge is to build the tiny devices that will deliver these interventions and to prove they bring transformational treatments for patients.”

Substantial US government funding is available for start-ups exploring the same territory. Funds are available from a $248m programme called Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions (Sparc), provided by the National Instititutes of Health. There is also a $79m initiative called Electrical Prescriptions (ElectRx) run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa).

The most high-profile research connecting electronics to people involves the human brain. Neurotechnology projects enabling disabled people to control bionic limbs by thought and prosthetic implants that reconstruct damaged brain circuits have received much publicity.

However, bioelectronics research is focusing less on the central nervous system than on the peripheral nerves outside the brain and spinal cord, which influence the function of every organ in the body.

Doug Weber, who runs Darpa’s ElectRx programme, says: “The peripheral nervous system is the body’s information superhighway, communicating a vast array of sensory and motor signals that monitor our health status and effect changes in brain and organ functions to keep us healthy.”

A simple and well established example is the pacemaker, which stimulates the heart to beat at a healthy rate.

The aim of researchers is to develop more sophisticated devices programmed to read and correct the electrical signals that pass along the nerves, to treat conditions as diverse as inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, asthma, hypertension and diabetes.

It may even be possible to use peripheral nerve stimulation to tackle disorders rooted in the brain, according to Darpa, for instance by reducing the body’s overproduction of inflammatory molecules, which are implicated in several neurological diseases.

One of the first companies to specialise in bioelectronics was SetPoint Medical, based in California. It was also the first to receive money from the $50m Action Potential Venture Capital Fund GSK set up in 2013 to invest in companies developing bioelectronic medicines and technologies.

The fund has invested in five companies so far. Moncef Slaoui, GSK’s head of vaccines, says: “We see the development of bioelectronic medicines as a collaborative process that will only be successful with the combined skills of world-leading engineers, physiologists, neuroscientists and informatics experts.”

SetPoint is in early clinical trials with a device that stimulates the vagus nerve, the body’s longest individual nerve which extends from the brain stem to the abdomen by way of organs such as the heart, oesophagus and lungs. This exerts an anti-inflammatory effect, SetPoint says, that will help rheumatoid arthritis patients and those suffering from Crohn’s disease, caused by inflammation in the digestive tract.

EnteroMedics, based in Minnesota, has a more advanced clinical programme also targeting the vagus nerve. Results suggest that intermittently blocking the nerve with high-frequency electrical impulses can help obese people lose weight by reducing their appetite. But some experts worry that treatments aimed at the vagus nerve, which reaches so many organs, may have unwanted side-effects.

Most bioelectronic research is still at the stage of animal experimentation. The aim of scientists is to develop ultra-specific bioelectronic products that work without any of the unwanted side effects of today’s drugs. Or, as GSK puts it: “To have the first medicine that speaks the electrical language of our body ready for approval by the end of this decade.”

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