Bioelectronics – The Next Revolution in Medicine
I was recently invited to attend a very special meeting at Case Western Reserve University. The topic was entitled “Bioelectronic Approaches to Personalized Medicine.” Roughly 100 Neuroscientists, Biomedical Engineers, and Clinicians gathered to share their progress in the new field known as “Bioelectronics,” or as some researchers like to call it – “Map and Zap.”
Bioelectronic medicine has the potential to be superior to drugs in terms of efficacy, cost and safety because it directly modulates the natural language of the body’s nervous systems — electrical impulses and action potentials. To appreciate the full potential for bioelectronic medicine, consider that virtually all the cells in the body are directly or indirectly controlled by neural input and that peripheral neural circuits play a pivotal role in maintaining homeostasis.1
In the next ten years, miniature electronic devices no larger than a grain of rice will be implanted at selected nerve fibers (axons) to stimulate or block neural activity to treat conditions such as asthma, Type II Diabetes, and digestive disorders, thus reducing or eliminating the need for traditional “molecular” medicines (e.g. pills or injections).
It is interesting to consider that by converging neurophysiology with data analysis and disease biology, it will be feasible to develop bioelectronic devices that can record and analyze neural and physiological data in real time and modulate the neural electric input to the target organs.1
I recently met with some scientists that are beginning to use machine learning and big data to analyze huge amounts of acquired data to identify biomarkers that indicate the onset of certain conditions. For example, connected biosensors will soon be able to detect the onset of an asthmatic episode and immediately stimulate the appropriate nerves to open the airways, thus preventing an asthma attack before it happens. Similar progress is being made with cardiac disease and epilepsy.
Wearable devices that monitor physiological activity (blood pressure, ecg, and eeg, for example) along with the increasing computing power of smartphones, will provide a truly personalized approach to healthcare. Imagine the following scenario:
Your electronic personal health assistant (using artificial intelligence similar to IBM’s Watson) has been monitoring your ECG, blood pressure, body weight, activity, and caloric intake using wearable and implanted devices that monitor your heartbeat, blood pressure, weight and activity. It notices that you have recently gained weight and your blood pressure is beginning to increase. Based upon this sensor information, your assistant realizes that this could lead to heart disease or hypertension, so it reminds you to get some exercise (while monitoring your activity, of course), and suggests a meal plan to shed those extra pounds. In addition to creating a menu, the assistant triggers an implant connected to nerves that control your appetite to help you feel full more quickly.
While this sounds like science fiction, the technology is within reach. Breakthroughs in nanotechnology, neurophysiology, and information technology are occurring at a rapid pace; and collaboration between these researchers is increasing. Just last month, GlaxoSmithKline and Alphabet (Google’s Parent Company) created a new company called “Galvani Bioelectronics”, and provided over $700 million in funding over the next 5 years. The National Institutes of Health has initiated the “Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions” (or “SPARC”) is also funding research to treat cancer and other diseases. The SPARC initiative is designed to minimize the amount of “red tape” normally required to obtain funding for this type of research.
As an expert in making instruments to measure pulmonary and electrophysiological signals, I am excited to bring a small part of this initiative to the Cape Fear region.
1 – Chavan, 2014
Mike Bower, the man, the myth, the legend. Electrical Engineer – Elite Innovations.
Prior to 2007, I worked for Vishay Micro-Measurements in the Triangle area as a software engineering manager. Most of my focus was in experimental mechanics, and the measurement systems I developed were used on projects as diverse as the International Space Station to the Freedom Tower in New York City.
Despite the fact that I had a rewarding and challenging career for over 20 years, the sea was calling. So my family and I decided to pack up and move to Wilmington from the Triangle area in 2007. I joined a small company called Buxco Research Systems. It was then when I became involved with biomedical technology, and I developed software and hardware for preclinical pulmonary research.
In January of 2014, Buxco was sold and moved out of the Wilmington area. I was given the opportunity to move to Minnesota, but by then my ties to Wilmington were too strong, so I joined a company based in Paris, France. Over the next several months, I built a small but very effective Research and Development lab over my garage, which included reflow ovens, microscopes, and 3D printing capability. During that time, I developed implantable telemetry devices used to measure biopotentials (ECG, EEG), core body temperature, and blood pressure in preclinical research. These devices are used by researchers to measure the responses (pulmonary, cardiovascular, neurological) caused by various interventions, including conventional (molecular) and bioelectronics.
In 2015, the decision was to consolidate the R&D efforts to Paris, and Montreal. I was given the opportunity to move to Paris or Montreal, but once again, I chose to remain in Wilmington. Fortunately, I was asked to represent the company as a Biomedical Engineer and am currently involved in providing technical support to the researchers.
These days, I travel throughout North America and work with a wide variety of researchers involved in the development of new therapies. A large part of my time is involved in training biomedical researchers in the use of sophisticated software and hardware used to measure complex signals such as ECG, EEG, and pulmonary function.
Wile I am currently a “one man show”, as my involvement (and reputation) in the Bioelectronics field grows, I hope to eventually bring more of this technology to the Wilmington area.