Nerve-signal modifying implants open new frontiers in medicine

Verily Life Sciences, Google’s Alphabet Inc.'s research organisation devoted to the study of life sciences, has struck a deal with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to develop miniature bioelectrical implants capable of modifying nerve signals to the body’s organs. 

The two firms hope the first prototypes could be ready within seven years. The goal is to create implants smaller than a rice grain, which could be used to treat conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, asthma, obesity, high blood pressure or even arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.

The implants would register and influence subtle nerve signals that control the function of organs and hormones at the cellular level. The implants, attached to miniature bundles of nerves, would be linked to specific organs and wirelessly connected to a power source.

In a similar way to heart pacemakers and defibrillator implants, they will correct irregular or altered electrical impulses causing organs to malfunction.

"This is definitely not science fiction,” said Kris Famm, GSK's vice-president of bioelectronics R&D. “It is going to become reality. Our view is that now is the time to build these devices. In 10 years’ time I think it's very realistic to imagine that if you have Type 2 diabetes you could go to your specialist to have bioelectronic medical treatment.”

Famm said the devices could be implanted through keyhole surgery and programmed by a specialist for a specific task.

GSK and Verily Life Sciences will form a new company called Galvani Bioelectronics - to be based in Stevenage - which will take the concept from laboratory to the real world.

The two firms expect to invest £540m into the venture over the next seven years.

Medical devices that modify large-scale neural circuits already exist, but these can have unpredictable side-effects. For instance, stimulating the vagus nerve can improve symptoms of epilepsy and depression but affects many different organs.

The bioelectronic implant treatments envisaged by GSK will be much more precise, involving pinpointed circuits at specific intervention points in the peripheral nervous system.

Research has shown that high blood pressure can be controlled through signals in the carotid-sinus and renal nerves. The production of inflammatory molecules that play a role in rheumatoid arthritis can be modified through the splenic nerve.

"Many of the processes of the human body are controlled by electrical signals firing between the nervous system and the body's organs, which may become distorted in many chronic diseases,” said Moncef Slaoui, GSK's chairman of global vaccines, who will chair the board of the new company.

"Bioelectronic medicine's vision is to employ the latest advances in biology and technology to interpret this electrical conversation and to correct the irregular patterns found in disease states, using miniaturised devices attached to individual nerves.

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