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Electroceuticals illuminate possibility of a final frontier

Electroceuticals, which can use electrical impulses to modulate the body's nervous system, are gaining momentum and are being viewed as a potential future alternative to drugs.

Electroceuticals, which can use electrical impulses to modulate the body's nervous system, are gaining momentum and are being viewed as a potential future alternative to drugs.

Even Star Trek's chief medical officer Bones might be impressed. Many of these devices in development are wireless, dissolvable, and remote-controlled but most of them are an estimated five to 10 years away from being cleared by the US food and drug administration (FDA).

Now, GlaxoSmithKline, Britain's largest drug maker, is getting in on the action.

In April, Glaxo launched a contest promising a US$1 million prize to stimulate innovation in the electroceuticals field and said the company would also fund up to 40 researchers working in external laboratories.

Glaxo wants to make headway in applying electrical interventions at the micro level by targeting specific cells within neural circuits.

While devices that use electrical impulses to treat medical conditions, such as heart pacemakers, defibrillators and deep-brain stimulation devices, already exist, ones that target specific cells in the body do not.

"At GlaxoSmithKline and in academia, we are confident that this field will deliver real medicines, and we are mobilising resources for this journey," Kristoffer Famm, head of bioelectronics research for GlaxoSmithKline, along with colleagues, wrote in the journal Nature.

In November, the journal reported that researchers in Massachusetts had found a way to extract power from the ear.

The team developed a chip that can exploit the inner ear's electrical potential, which is generated to convert sound into neural impulses. They inserted electrodes from the chip through a natural opening into the inner ear of an anaesthetised guinea pig. The chip extracted about 1 nanowatt, enough to power 8-bit PIC microcontroller chips when in "sleep" mode, for up to five hours. Such a chip might provide power for electroceutical devices implanted in the body without the need for batteries.

Experts believe electroceuticals may stimulate nerve and bone growth, help heal wounds, deliver drugs, act as antibiotics and aid in the treatment of a host of diseases from obesity to diabetes and certain types of cancers.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania and the Feinstein Institute of Medical Research are three academic centres involved in research efforts for GlaxoSmithKline's electroceutical initiative.

Dr Christopher Bettinger, an assistant professor in the departments of materials science and biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, says the emerging field of electroceuticals is the latest development in the study of "nonconventional electronics", turning to the technologies of computers and servers and seeing how these functions might be applied to new spaces with different constraints and materials.

Generally speaking, the field draws on the skill sets from areas such as biology, computing, material science and nanotechnology.

Glaxo is onboard, saying bioelectronic medicines "could potentially coax insulin from cells to treat diabetes, regulate food intake to treat obesity and correct balances in smooth muscle tone to treat hypertension and pulmonary diseases", according to the company's website.

There is hope that bioelectronic medicine can also be used someday to treat brain disorders.

The drug maker aims to have the first biolectronic medicine ready for approval by the end of this decade.

Through the launch of its new funding programme, Glaxo will support up to 20 projects around the world that will rapidly initiate research in electroceuticals - in addition to its larger $1m prize. The company states it is particularly interested in projects that begin detailing the relationship between nerves in the body and how they are related to specific diseases, as well as understanding the firing patterns of those nerves.

A small, in-house research team at Glaxo will manage the programme. The team also plans to crowd-source ideas from the global scientific community.

In December, the company will also hold an international conference for the biolectronic research community for leaders to meet, build relationships and share early findings. The company believes the conference will also help identify the most profound challenges facing the bioelectronic sector.

The recipient of the $1m prize will have made significant headway in addressing and presenting a reasonable solution to that profound challenge, Glaxo says.

Although the drug maker's prize is a tiny sliver of its nearly $40 billion in revenue last year, the initiative will shed light on the potential for electroceuticals and its applications in the future of medicine.

Some of the key challenges in brining these technologies to market include difficulty in manufacturing due to quality control issues, and safety concerns since devices are implanted and absorbed into the body.

But there is no doubt the development of these futuristic treatments will only grow exponentially.

 

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