The Future of Pharmaceuticals Could Be Electronic Implants

NOTE: This is an overview of an article which appeared in the IEEE Spectrum online on July 26, 2013
Click here to read the entire article.

Technology is advancing exponentially in many disciplines, and it may soon impact medical research in a big way. Imagine a future in which doctors use electrical impulses to treat diseases rather than administer the chemical or biological molecules in today’s pharmaceuticals. GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a British drug maker, has introduced what the company has dubbed electroceuticals in hopes of changing the face of medicine.

The company’s radical vision is this: to connect thousands of tightly packed individual nerve cells with tiny electrodes and associated circuitry to read and interpret the “code” in the collection of nerve-cell fibers that make up a nerve, then modulate the code to restore a specific function or inhibit the malfunctioning pathways.

“No treatments like this even remotely exist today”, says Kristoffer Famm, head of bioelectronics research at GSK. “The medicine will speak the body’s language.”

Currently, GSK is spearheading a major bioelectronics research program that will award a US $1million prize and provide funding for up to 40 researchers working toward the goal of discovering the neural codes of several diseases to identify interventions points.

Medtronic, the world’s largest medical-device manufacturer, sees potential down the road. “Currently we are investing in such technology advancements as device miniaturization and embedding smart sensors and algorithms into our systems, and we are always open to additional new ideas that may lead to new therapies that provide clinical and economic benefit”, says John LaLonde, vice president of product development, technology, and research at Medtronic.

However, while the research is promising and very exciting, there are many challenges that lie ahead. A major concern is finding out which nerve bundle and which signal or regiment of signals one wants to program or reprogram. Possible problems can also arise from invasive procedures that require implanting devices.

Famm says that one of their holy grails is the fact that researchers don’t have completely reliable and durable arrays of nanosize electrodes that they can snap onto any nerve and that are able to interpret every nerve fiber.

Hopefully, one day, clinicians will be able to coax insulin from the pancreas to treat diabetes, regulate food intake to treat obesity, and correct balances in smooth-muscle to treat hypertension and pulmonary diseases. In order to succeed, engineers and biologists will have to work together in full collaboration to bring about the era of electroceuticals.

Kristoffer Famm is the lead author of a Nature article, Drug discovery: A jump-start for electroceuticals, which reported on the development.