Imagine a world where we treated deadly diseases with electricity instead of pills or chemo.
We might not be as far from this reality as you think.
Normally, our nervous systems send signals to our tissues and organs to suppress inflammation, a phenomenon known as the inflammatory reflex. But sometimes, this system gets out of whack, and can even result in diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.
Traditionally, doctors have treated these diseases using drugs designed to suppress inflammation, such as infliximab (trade name Remicade) oradalimumab (Humira). But these drugs are expensive. Plus, they don’t work for everyone, often come with nasty side effects, and sometimes, although rarely, they can even kill.
Now, some researchers have found a way to deliver electrical stimulation to just the right areas to stop chronic inflammation in its tracks — a therapy they’re calling bioelectronic medicine.
Like many great ideas in science, this one came as an accident. Neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey, the president and CEO of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York, and his colleagues were studying a chemical that blocked inflammation in the brain, when they found it also decreased inflammation in the spleen and other organs. At the time, “we didn’t understand how the brain could be communicating with the immune system,” Tracey told Business Insider.
As it turns out, the body has an inflammatory reflex that controls how we respond to injury or infection.
When the body senses an infection or injury, the brain is notified via the vagus nerve, which relays information from the heart, lungs, and other abdominal organs. But it’s a two-way street: The brain also sends electrical signals via the vagus nerve to the organs, tamping down the production of inflammatory molecules. But in diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, these signals stop working effectively.
Tracey and his colleagues have found a way to restore those signals, by implanting tiny electronic devices that can deliver targeted electrical shocks to the vagus nerve.
The electrical therapy is already being tested for some diseases.
A company Tracey founded, called Set Point Medical, has conducted clinical trials of this technology in Europe for treating rheumatoid arthritis, and the results have been promising. But is the stimulation treating the cause of the disease, or merely the symptoms? Possibly both, though we will only know after more studies, Tracey said.
Research like Tracey’s has inspired broader interest in bioelectronic medicine. The US military’s research and development branch, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), launched a program in fall of last year called Electryx to fund research on electrical treatments for various diseases.
The Electrx program aims to make it easier to deliver the electrical stimulation in a way that is both minimally invasive and precisely targeted, Doug Weber, a DARPA program manager and bioengineer at the University of Pittsburgh, told Business Insider.
This type of therapy still has a long way to go before it’s widely used. Today’s therapeutic devices are pretty blunt, consisting of large electrodes that stimulate an entire nerve, when you may only want to target a small fraction of nerve fibres.
“We want to be able to identify specifically those fibres for therapeutic benefit, and have the technology to target those fibres directly,” said Weber.
Beyond funding devices that would treat disease, DARPA said they also plans to fund projects designed to constantly monitor the body and potentially detect disease if and when it starts.
Last month, DARPA selected the Electryx proposals it plans to fund, and is in the process of finalising the contracts. The program will officially kick off in October, Weber said.
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