The world was all a twitter a couple of years ago when Apple announced they were diving into the wearables pool. The technosphere could barely contain the excitement of knowing that the world’s most prolific maker of smartphones and tablets could do the same for medicine what it did for consumer electronics. But that was so yesterday. Move over wearables, it’s time to make room for bioelectronics.
For the record, the concept of bioelectronics is not all that new. We have been implanting electronic devices inside human bodies for decades. The pacemaker and spinal cord stimulator immediately come to mind. Nonetheless, new technologies are taking the bioelectronics concept much higher.
At the heart of bioelectronics is something known as signal processing. Rock West Solutions, a Southern California company that specializes in signal processing for healthcare applications, explains that advanced signal processing techniques are necessary to develop bioelectronic devices for specialized purposes. The better the processing, the more specialized a device can be.
Electrical Signals as Medicines
The foundational principles of bioelectronics are quite simple. Again, we can refer to the pacemaker and spinal cord stimulator. A pacemaker keeps the heart beating by generating electrical signals whenever the heart starts beating irregularly. A spinal cord stimulator does what it does by delivering electrical signals to the spinal cord.
In both cases, small bursts of electricity act as medicine. But rather than being pharmaceutical products that travel throughout the bloodstream, the electrical signals stimulate nerves to do what they should be doing on their own.
As an example, a new bioelectronic device profiled in an MD+DI article published in late July (2018) is intended to treat chronic inflammatory diseases. The device is implanted in the patient where it delivers controlled electrical signals up to four times per day. Those electrical signals stimulate what is known as the inflammatory reflex which, in turn, triggers the immune and central nervous systems. The result is a natural anti-inflammatory response.
In simple terms, this new bioelectronic device reduces the inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis using electrical signals rather than drugs. The company behind it plans to continue developing it for use with other conditions including type II diabetes and endocrine disorders. The device has already demonstrated a 60% success rate under testing conditions.
Treating Problems Instead of Symptoms
The brilliant minds behind bioelectronics view the technologies they are developing as a way to treat medical problems at their roots rather than just addressing symptoms. That is a fantastic way to look at it. Unfortunately, a fair number of the pharmaceutical products now on the market do not really address the underlying causes of disease. Rather, they alleviate symptoms.
Bioelectronics developers have an entirely different goal in mind. They want to use technology to encourage the body of a sick patient to perform the way it is designed to perform. If they can accomplish that, they will actually be treating the root causes of disease. Imagine the possibilities that could come from this way of thinking.
A Lot of Data and Testing
It is great that a small number of companies are working hard to produce a new generation of bioelectronics. As for the rest of us, we are going to have to be patient for the time being. Effective bioelectronic devices could still be 5 to 10 years down the road due to the sheer amount of data and testing necessary to perfect the technologies.
While researchers are collecting data, analyzing it, and improving signal processing, we will have to continue making do with what’s currently available. But make no mistake, bioelectronics are on the way.