Bioelectronic medicine may trick body into healing itself


Imagine a world without rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, asthma, obesity, Alzheimer's, and lupus? Every day, close to a billion people suffer from these inflammatory diseases. They pump their bodies full of drugs and live their lives in constant fear of what's to come.

But what if they didn't have to? Or at the very least what if their suffering could be mitigated?

One Long Island neurosurgeon -- Dr. Kevin Tracey, the President of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research -- is making significant strides towards doing just that.

"Bioelectronic medicine is a big idea. And it's not some future sci-fi story," Tracey said. "This is happening now."

He says bioelectronic medicine is a new field but the hope and promise is significant. Bioelectronic medicine is not an innovation but a revolution. Its concept is simple: use an electrical current to trick the body into healing itself.

Bioelectronic medicine holds the promise of treating a variety of diseases and illnesses. But how do you go from the hope of improving lives to the device that actually makes it happen? That work happens at the labs at the Feinstein Institute on Long Island.

"At the end of the day we are helping the human body to understand what different challenges are there and then to differentiate between different challenges and perform better," said Sangeeta Chavan, an associate investigator at Feinstein.

All this work hinges on the understanding of how the body processes inflammation on a molecular level.

"You need some inflammation to heal wounds and recover from injury or infection," Tracey said. "The problem comes if there's too much inflammation."

What Tracey's team has been working on for the last 15 years with the help of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline has culminated in a device no larger than your average over-the-counter pain medication. Small but mighty, this device can literally reroute the neuro-pathways of sick patients by tapping into the vagus nerve, the body's information superhighway, located on the left side of the neck. The device works just like a pacemaker. Tracey's idea essentially hits the off switch on the vagus nerve, causing it to turn off its inflammatory response.

"The hope and promise of devices like these is that we can reactivate the signals that have failed and treat the disease," he said.

The research on bioelectronics is largely conducted out of the Feinstein labs. But the actual device is being engineered by California's SetPoint Medical, a company cofounded by Tracey.

"It really is a life- and game-changing therapy we are excited to be developing," said Anthony Arnold, the president and CEO of SetPoint.

SetPoint is also responsible for the clinical trials. So far, 18 patients have been treated in Europe, where the pathway to regulation is quicker and easier.

"Most of the patients had successful outcomes," Arnold said. "Some had very remarkable, near-remission of disease."

Scientific American chronicled the story of one man, whose identify is not publicly known. Tracey met him in November 2014 in his native Bosnia. Left with no medical options, the man enrolled in SetPoint's trial.

"it was amazing because he felt so much better within weeks that he went from essentially being homebound on his couch to being very physically active," Tracey said.

However promising, the device can have some adverse effects.

"Some patients are hoarse a few days after the surgery -- that tends to go away pretty quickly," Arnold said.

All told, this device -- and the theory of bioelectronics -- appears to be a game-changer.

"In 10 to 20 years, devices will be so small that they'll be implanted either by injecting them through small needles or even potentially by rubbing them on through the skin," Tracey said.

What is more, they will be controlled by your doctor through a smart phone or computer.