When we think of medical breakthroughs, most of us probably think of things like gene therapy, CAR T-cell treatments in oncology or new drugs for rare diseases. Not many of us are likely to have electroceuticals top of mind, yet they have been described as the next wave of new treatments for disease.
Maybe we don’t have much of a clear idea of what an electroceutical is. Despite this, we are all familiar that electricity plays an important part in the functioning of the body and know that implanted devices like pacemakers have long been used to modify its effects. Bioelectronic medicine has therefore been around for a while but as a result of the coming together of advances in bioengineering and neurology the field is about to take off.
Pharmaceutical companies, like GSK, along with many start-ups are very interested and are investing large sums of money in research. The financial attraction is a potentially multi-billion dollar market to sit alongside that for drugs. As a consequence, we have the new term electroceuticals, describing therapeutic agents which act by targeting the neural circuits of organs. The idea is to identify specific nerves and implant devices that can stimulate or reduce their activity. As Robert Kirsch, Chair of Biomedical Engineering at Case Western University, says ‘The nervous system uses electricity as its language so electrical stimulation can be used theoretically just about anywhere in the nervous system’ 1
Electroceuticals are already being used to treat certain types of depression and pain but the big promise lies in what they may do for chronic diseases like hypertension, arthritis, diabetes or even dementia. Micro-implants are being developed and in the US a project called SPARC, funded by the National Institute of Health, is aiming to map every nerve of the nervous system outside the brain, hence an article in Time magazine in October this year entitled ‘Why its time to take electrified medicine seriously’.
The attractive thing about electroceuticals is that they are highly targeted and seem to work where drug treatments don’t, potentially offering effective and maybe side effect free treatment to patients in need. With six bioelectric devices covering sinus pain, overactive bladder, obstructive sleep apnea, ADHD, migraine and IBS being given approval or clearance by the FDA in the first half of this year, maybe it won’t be too long before patients are asking their doctors if they can do something for their electrics!
- Why its time to take electrified medicine seriously Time October 24th 2019