AIF Blog

Sparking a Revolution in Disease Treatment

Jan 28, 2016
CATEGORY: Health, Science, Technology
Biology and electronics
Innovations are often explored at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and at the 2015 Spotlight Health segment of the event, medical experts told an audience about one of the more promising and exciting advances in disease treatment to come along in decades.
Neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey, a pioneer in the emerging field of bioelectronic medicine, explained how using the body’s own nervous system could revolutionize disease treatment, perhaps someday supplanting the need to pop pills or regularly visit a doctor.
The body’s nervous system is an elaborate, interconnected network not unlike an urban road system, with pathways that include highways and streets, intersections, and on- and off-ramps, explained moderator Jonathan LaPook, chief medical correspondent for “CBS Evening News.” Researchers are finding more and more connections between the body’s nerves and everything else; in fact, the nervous system essentially acts as a conduit for the brain to communicate with other parts of the body, such as organs and cells. 
Bioelectronic medicine involves using neurotransmitters to control a target that might be causing or influencing disease or chronic conditions, which is an entirely different approach than the drugs we have been using for 120 years, explained Tracey, who is president and CEO of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research.   
Pharmaceuticals find the molecular target at the heart of a disease problem. They work by attempting to block a cell or a receptor, by preventing something from happening, as LaPook explained — and oftentimes causing unwanted side effects. Bioelectronic treatments, on the other hand, work in a positive fashion, making things fire.
Here’s how Moncef Slaoui, chairman of R&D and vaccines for GlaxoSmithKline, explained bioelectronic medicine and where things are heading with it.
Bioelectronic medicine will soon treat obesity, diabetes, lung disease, immune system diseases, bladder problems, pain, hypertension, cardiac issues, and probably more, said Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. But, he added, it will take a large collective effort from experts in various disciplines to get there.
NIH is spurring some of those efforts through a $248 million dollar program called SPARC (Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions). Its first round of awards will be given with a goal to better define the microanatomy of the nervous system, which essentially has not been updated since about 1920, said Collins.
“What we really need if we’re really going to try to intervene is a much more sophisticated way to measure what’s going on there, getting the neuro-anatomy squared away,” he said.
So far, bioelectronic clinical trials have proven quite successful. Tracey gave the example of the first patient implanted with a bioelectronic chip in 2011, who went from being confined to his bed with rheumatoid arthritis to being fully physically functional just a few weeks later. Slaoui cited an experiment with rats that cured them of infertility. 
“These are all the kinds of things that technology is allowing us to think about that just a few years ago were outside our reach,” said Collins. “We’re uncovering something that’s kind of been a backwater. The autonomic nervous system, now it’s time has come.”
And once things the brain and nervous system are better understood, said the experts, the possibilities are endless.
“Hopefully, human disease will be eliminated, or at least human health will be improved,” said Slaoui.
View the full session here.
By Catherine Lutz, Guest Blogger