Imagine you have a chronic condition such as diabetes or hypertension. You go to see your doctor who recommends that you have an implant. A small electronic device, introduced through standard keyhole surgery, will change the messages your nerves send around your body so you feel better. It sounds like something out of science fiction – but within 10 years it could be a reality, thanks to a new field known as bioelectronic medicine.
The idea of using electrical impulses to treat long-term conditions isn’t new. Pacemakers, which work by sending electrical impulses to the heart to correct an irregular heartbeat, have been in use for nearly 50 years. And doctors use electrical stimulation of the spinal cord – part of the central nervous system – to treat pain.
But what makes bioelectronics different is that it works by using the body’s peripheral nervous system – all the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. These nerves carry electrical signals between the brain and all the organs around the body that are central in chronic diseases.
In some chronic conditions, the signals that travel around these nerves have gone awry. In others, the changed signals can help restore healthy organ functions. Using a small, battery-powered implant that sends electrical pulses, nerve signal patterns can be tweaked to block or boost the signals as required. The result of the treatment could be to loosen the airway of someone suffering from asthma, for example, or nudge cells to produce insulin for patients with type 2 diabetes.
Last year, GSK, together with Verily Life Sciences (owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company), launched a new company, Galvani Bioelectronics. Based at GSK’s research centre in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, and Verily’s facility in San Francisco, Galvani will seek to bring about the promise of bioelectronic medicines to patients around the world. While GSK brings deep scientific and clinical expertise to the venture, Verily brings complementary expertise, including technological knowhow to create the small, low-power electronic implants.
By The Guardian
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