Could Hacking Nerves Cure Diseases?

BY: CAROLINE WANG, CONTRIBUTOR

 

With the rise of afflictions in major diseases such as arthritis, asthma, and diabetes, new and often unconventional methods are being introduced into the world of therapy. One company, named Galvani Bioelectronics, hopes to bring one such unconventional treatment to the table within seven years- along with other big names including GlaxoSmithKline and Verily.

This “unconventional” potential therapy is made unique by its risqué implementation of bioelectronics. The proposed therapy would control human nerve cells through a series of tiny electric nerve cuffs, wrapped around bundles of nerves throughout the neck. The electrode containing nerve cuffs could then control the quantum of the signals sent by the specific nerve, therefore allowing researchers to augment and even control the signals the brain receives and works with.

But how does this supposedly bioelectronic therapy work?

Imagine your nervous system as a long line of people playing the game “telephone”, in which each person must pass on a message down the line until the necessary message can reach the target.  Like the subjects of the game, each neuron must receive the message, or the “signal”, from a latter neuron, and pass on this signal to the next neuron ahead. Now further imagine that there is a 1 mile gap between each “Telephone” player, or neuron. With no way to communicate with other players, neurons are forced to interact through a process called “conduction”, where communication between the neurons is achieved through neurotransmitters: basically tiny electricity-powered messengers who deliver the signal in between that 1 mile gap. Eventually, the “Telephone” players grow tired of the large gap, and construct a “gap junction”, through which each player can be physically connected to each other, and still have the neurotransmitters move the message for them. Finally, imagine that you have control of these neurotransmitters. With an unlimited reign on these tiny molecules, you essentially hold the power to regulate what message the players will receive, or if the players/neurons will receive any message at all. Ultimately, every neuron sends its message to the brain – or the “Telephone” target – indirectly providing you the power to control what message the brain will receive.

With this promising therapy of “hacking” or controlling the messages to your brain, researchers claim that this ingenious idea of ‘using the electricity that powers your neurotransmitters’ could hold the therapies needed to cure the next generation of diseases.

A prominent example of this proposition’s potential was shown in a set of tests suggesting that the approach could help treat type-2 diabetes, a disease in which the body ignores the hormone insulin. By focusing the bioelectronic cuffs on a cluster of nerves that check insulin levels, researchers found that they could control the flow of messages that the nerves sent to the brain, and even modify these “insulin messengers” to send different commands. Furthermore, since such neural signatures are actually promoters of type-2 diabetes, researchers have found that blocking these neural signals with the bioelectronic cuffs helps restore the body’s sensitivity to insulin, ultimately leading to a “cure” for type-2 diabetes.

Research suggests that type-2 diabetes isn’t the only major disease that this proposed bioelectronic therapy could help cure.

GSK vice-president of bioelectronics Kris Famm told BBC News: “This isn’t just a one-trick pony, it’s something that if we get it right, we could have a new class of therapies on our hands,” implying that this seemingly unconventional therapy could have a promising future in the field of medicine. But despite the exciting prospective of a bioelectronic therapy, Dr. Famm also admitted that the field was only “scratching the surface” when it came to understanding which nerve signals correspond to what effects.

Although the approach works in theory, huge amounts of effort will be needed to make the technology practical. GlaxoSmithKline and Verily have already invested over $715 million dollars into these “electroceuticals”, with both companies hoping to implement Comfort, accessibility, and durability – just a few of the major complications that are yet to be augmented before this therapy can be introduced to local hospitals.

Despite the many complications of bioelectronic therapy that exist today, it is undeniable that such an advanced therapy will play a pivotal role in the next era of treatments for major diseases tomorrow.

 

Image Credits: By Bigscience1999 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons