In recent years, doctors have added another weapon to their arsenal for treating disease: bioelectronics. This new healthcare technology is proving extremely useful in treating diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis as well as irritable bowel syndrome. Some believe that bioelectric medicine could even significantly disrupt the U.S. pharmaceutical market.
How It Works
Neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey, founder of Set Point Medical, discovered that the same nerve that controls inflammation in the brain also controls organ inflammation, according to Business Insider. The vagus nerve allows the brain to communicate with the immune system.
This inflammatory reflex controls how the body responds to injury or infection, but it can go haywire. According to Business Insider, “The brain 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.”
Bioelectric medicine seeks to restore this communication by surgically implanting tiny electronic devices that send the vagus nerve targeted electric shocks. Set Point Medical has used this treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. Patients who participated in a 2016 trial study saw a significant reduction in rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. According to Science Daily, “Several patients reported significant improvements, including some who had previously failed to respond to any other form of pharmaceutical treatment. In addition, no serious adverse side effects were reported.”
Drugs can also help correct inflammatory reflex issues, but they’re not as effective and are often cost prohibitive. For example, epilepsy seizures come from malfunctioning communications with the brain, but drugs don’t work for 20 percent of epileptic patients, which is why doctors are turning to bioelectronic treatments, according to a report in The Boston Globe.
Though in its early stages, optimism for bioelectronics runs high. The ElectRx program, run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aims to use “electronic prescriptions” to treat everything from anxiety to general inflammation.
Startups are also working to improve healthcare technology. In addition to Set Point Medical, NeuroPace and NeuroSigma are pioneering bioelectric techniques. NeuroPace’s RNS system constantly monitors the brainwaves of epilepsy patients to detect and prevent the onset of a seizure, while NeuroSigma is developing a nerve stimulation treatment for disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit disorder.
Alphabet, Boston Scientific and GSK, among others, are also pouring money into research. The technology has attracted some $1 billion in funding over the past three years, according to The Boston Globe.
Electric stimulation treatment has been around for a while, but it often involves invasive surgery, as is the case with deep brain stimulation to treat Parkinson’s disease. But bioelectronics supporters foresee a time when doctors will inject a grain-size device into patients to cure their diseases, according to The Boston Globe. This bioelectric medicine could reduce the overall cost of treatment, as an implant would eliminate the ongoing expenses of drugs used to treat the same condition.
It will take years to fully master bioelectric medicine’s utility, but its use illustrates healthcare’s embrace of new forms of treatment.