We’ll soon be able to hack our nerves into controlling diseases

A novel treatment method, which involves applying an electrical current to nerve cells, could help treat a wide range of conditions, from diabetes to arthritis, according to medical company Galvani Bioelectronics. With backing from GSK and Verily Life Sciences, Galvani hopes to bring their technique within seven years.

“Neuron” sculpture by Roxy Paine.
Image credits Christopher Neugebauer / Flickr.

During animal trials, Galvani researchers attached electrodes housed in tiny silicone cuffs around nerves and used to control the messages it carries. During one set of tests, the results suggested that the method could be used to treat type-2 diabetes, a metabolic disorder in which the body becomes resistant to insulin and produces too little of the hormone.

The team focused on a cluster of nerves in the animals’ necks near the main artery, which serve to check sugar an insulin hormone levels in the blood. They feed information to the brain, which in turn sends instructions to raise or lower these concentrations.

“The neural signatures in the nerve increase in type 2-diabetes,” said GSK vice-president of bioelectronics Kris Famm for BBC News. “By blocking those neural signals in diabetic rats, you see the sensitivity of the body to insulin is restored.”

And the applications don’t stop there.

“It isn’t just a one-trick-pony, it is something that if we get it right could have a new class of therapies on our hands,” Mr Famm said.

He also added that we’ve only begun “scratching the surface” when it comes to understanding how each nerve signal affects our body. We don’t even know if it’s just an issue of turning a nerve on or off, or if the signal’s volume and rhythm make a difference. And even if the approach works theoretically, a huge amount of effort will be needed to make the technology practical. So don’t expect your doctor to suggest it anytime too soon.

But once it becomes available, the electrode kits will be miniaturized and customizable to different pairs of nerves, durable enough to survive in your body for extended periods of time, and powered by efficient batteries — so kind of like pacemakers, but for nerves. So when will they become available?

“In 10 to 20 years I think there will be a set of these miniaturised precision therapies that will be available for you and me when we go to a doctor,” Dr Famm said.

“Bioelectronic medicine is a new area of therapeutic exploration, and we know that success will require the confluence of deep disease biology expertise and new highly miniaturised technologies,” added Verily chief technology officer Brian Otis.

“This partnership provides an opportunity to further Verily’s mission by deploying our focused expertise in low power, miniaturised therapeutics and our data analytics engine to potentially address many disease areas with greater precision with the goal of improving outcomes.”

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