One day, in the not too distant future, you might not recognize the pharmaceutical industry…
Right now, pharmaceutical firms develop drugs that interact biochemically with our bodies in order to treat various diseases and conditions. But that’s changing…
A number of pharmaceutical companies will eventually transform into bioelectronics companies. Their treatments will consist of tiny implantable devices that “speak” the body’s electric language.
Think of it as a type of technology similar to a heart pacemaker. But much, much more advanced.
The Brave New World of Electroceuticals
Welcome to the brave new world of neuromodulation and electroceuticals. It’s a world where neural signal modulation will be the treatment path followed by tomorrow’s doctors, not drugs.
Most electroceuticals will be about the size of a grain of rice. The devices will be attached to peripheral nerves and will modulate neural signals.
This will be a quantum leap from current disease treatment methods using drugs, which are actually very blunt instruments. And we all know about the numerous side-effects drugs can cause…
Whereas regulating the electrical firings of neural circuits can be far more precise and without the nasty side-effects. So says Kristoffer Famm, Vice President of Bioelectronics at GlaxoSmithKline Plc (GSK). As he told the Financial Times, “The nervous system is a fundamental control system in biology.”
And the nervous system is where scientists are exploring new frontiers. Prime early opportunities bioelectronics research is focusing on metabolic, cardiovascular, and inflammatory disorders.
One prime area of research for bioelectronics is the brain and epilepsy. Epilepsy is directly caused by an electrical malfunction of the brain. This common neurological disease affects more than 50 million people worldwide. And conventional drugs aren’t really that effective in combating it.
However, most current bioelectronics research is focused on the electrical language of peripheral nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. It’s these nerves that influence the function of every organ in the body.
DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is involved in the field through its $79 million Electrical Prescriptions (ElectRx) initiative.
The head of the program, Doug Weber, spoke to the Financial Times about the importance of the research into peripheral nerves:
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 affect changes in brain and organ functions to keep us healthy.
The aforementioned GSK is the leader in electroceutical research. It has over 50 research collaborations on bioelectronics around the globe. In 2013, GSK set up the $50 million Action Potential Venture Capital Fund and has invested in five start-ups to date.
One company GSK invested in is SetPoint. It’s developing an implantable device that stimulates the vagus nerve in the neck with electrical impulses. The goal is to counter the inflammation caused by rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease.
Another start-up, ElectroCore (not affiliated with GSK), is taking a different route with electroceuticals. It thinks treatments can be delivered through the skin. It wants to treat migraine headaches by stimulating the vagus nerve with electrical impulses to the neck. The goal is control glutamate, which has been linked to migraines.
The Future Is Here
In a way, the future is already here. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of some electroceuticals a few years ago.
The first example is Inspire Medical Systems’ treatment of sleep apnea by the implantation of a device that stimulates the airway muscles.
A second example is a treatment for morbid obesity from EnteroMedics Inc. (ETRM). This implantable device stimulates the vagus nerve to make a person feel full. However, results for the weight control device have been mixed.
The future for electroceuticals, however, looks bright.
GSK’s Famm compares the potential of bioelectronics in medicine to what Apple did for phones.
We likely won’t see most of that potential until perhaps the end of the decade. Most current research is still at the animal experimentation stage.
For the use of electroceuticals to become widespread, technology still needs to advance. Improvements need to made in power sources, for example. Wireless rechargeable batteries that last for decades would be ideal.
When such advances do occur, it will mark a complete transformation of the pharmaceutical industry.