Inflammatory afflictions like rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease used to be treated with drugs – painkillers, steroids or genetically engineered proteins – expensive, hard to administer and with sometimes lethal side effects.
Yesterday the US Federal Drug Administration approved a new procedure that sees chip-controlled electricity delivered to the vagus nerve to reproduce the drugs’ anti-inflammatory reactions.
Since late in the 1990s researchers at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research had been working on electrical stimulation of the nervous system, which showed that in certain cases it could do so more effectively than traditional drugs, and with minimal health risks. A decade later, stem-cell researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York discovered a link between the nervous system and prostate tumours.
Now, the new field of bioelectronics is seen as an industry that could replace the drug industry. Researchers are developing implants that can interact directly with the nervous system and are targeted to fight almost ‘everything’, from cancer to the common cold.
During the past twelve months, fourteen companies have listed in this promising new field. The major pharmaceutical companies refused to comment in time for the publication of this article.