Bioelectronic medicine - where nano-scale devices connect to groups of individual nerve fibres and change patterns of electrical signals to restore health to organs and biological functions - is a vision far from today’s medical practice.
But one day, 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.
As we outline in this commentary piece in Nature, we believe this is a vision now worth pursuing. And it is why we are seeking to grow and integrate a research network that will become a new bioelectronics community.
Recent progress points the way
The potential is drawn from progress in a range of disciplines. Researchers are beginning to document how a broad range of bodily functions are influenced by the nervous system, from the control of appetite and blood pressure, to the production of destructive cytokines in rheumatoid arthritis.
New technologies, such as the relatively new science of optogenetics, can address individual neurons in living tissue, opening the potential for mapping and close control over activity in real time. Such technologies will continue to rapidly advance within the billion-dollar programmes in the USA and Europe that are being set up to understand the brain’s architecture and function.
And ever advancing keyhole surgery is taking us towards the clinical possibility of placing miniature devices on individual nerve bundles throughout the body.
Distilling these advances into electrical impulse-based therapy will require joined-up working and commitment from a broad range of disciplines and research organisations.
Investing in the future
We are supporting the development of a new bioelectronics research community in three ways over the coming months:
- We are launching a new funding programme to support up to 20 projects around the world that will swiftly initiate research in areas that can underpin bioelectronic medicines. We will be interested in projects that begin detailing how nerves in the body are related to particular diseases, understand the firing patterns of those nerves, and explore new technologies that will enable us to interface with multiple individual nerve fibres. This programme will be integrated by a small in-house research team. The team will also crowd-source ideas from the global scientific community to identify which specific disease with a major peripheral neural control component would be the best proof of principle for bioeletronic medicines.
- In December 2013 we held an international conference for the bioelectronic research community where researchers were able to build relationships and share early findings. Through this conference, the community identified the challenge of creating an implantable device that can read and write the body’s electrical language as the most catalytic to the progression of bioelectronic medicines. We have offered a $1 million (US) prize for the solution to this challenge.
- We have also created Action Potential Venture Capital (APVC) Limited, a new $50 million strategic venture capital fund that invests in companies that pioneer bioelectronic medicines and technologies. The fund will focus investments in three areas: new start-up companies that aim to pursue the vision of bioelectronic medicines; existing companies with technologies that are interacting with the peripheral nervous system through first-generation devices that can stimulate or block electrical impulses; and companies advancing technology platforms that will underpin these treatment methods.
We believe that bioelectronic medicine will open up a whole new front in our mission to control and reverse disease. Our goal is to have the first medicine that speaks the electrical language of our body ready for approval by the end of this decade.