By Sharan Mujoo
This article is a part of the 2017: Changemakers Series
One of the most complicated systems known to man is the man himself. A system intertwined with bio-chemical-electrical pathways. To address the issues occurring in this system, medicine has traditionally followed a reductionist approach focusing on specialising, isolating and concentrating on the target area. Even though this approach bore fruit and gave hope to many, some wicked problems continued to exist. This ushered the era of multidisciplinary problem-solving. Enter the new age of Bioelectronics.
Bioelectronics: The future of medicine
Even though devices like pacemakers have been there for long, the field of bioelectronics has not expanded its scope with a focus towards becoming the future of medicine itself. That is precisely what GSK and Verily Life Sciences of Alphabet Inc. took on back in 2012 when they entered into a partnership. Both believed that bioelectronics is the future of medicine and to establish their confidence in this foresight, Galvani Bioelectronics was born in 2016. It is the only attempt at its scale with an estimated $715 million to be invested over the next seven years. The only other significant player in terms of capital has been the US Government with its National Institute of Health and DARPA.
Drugs and vaccines address ailments biochemically. Bioelectronics challenges this approach by targeting specific molecular targets in the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS). The PNS is a set of nerves which emanate from the spinal cord to all ends of the body. Many of the body processes are controlled by electrical signals between this system and the organs. By understanding the neural mechanisms which control the target area, one can develop devices which modulate these nerves in order to correct the irregular patterns of signalling. This could one day replace drugs for diseases such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, Hypertension and Alzheimer’s.
Major innovations in 2017
While plenty of research still needs to be undertaken in order to make bioelectronics effectively possible and feasible at scale, 2017 was a year which saw some remarkable developments otherwise in the field of medicine. With augmented reality/virtual reality taking the world by storm, even medicine wasn’t left out of the reach of these pervasive technologies. Echo Pixel was one such company which took data from CT and MRI scans to provide 3D holographic images. This makes the manipulation of anatomy immensely easier. Moreover, it makes education more accessible by lowering the learning curve.
The day when designer babies roam amongst us is also not far. Currently, Intellia is a company which aims to develop curative therapeutics using the recently developed CRISPR/Cas9 System. Permanently editing disease-associated genes with this technique could transform the medicine industry completely.
It is nigh impossible to prioritise the innovations which took place in 2017, however, there were plenty of other innovations which raised the eyebrows of the medical industry. Research into ketamine for treatment-resistant depression has shown positive signs. Patients show an improvement in symptoms within just 24 hours. Bioabsorbable stents pioneered by Abbot have shown great promise. Even though they were developed in 2016, this year saw more companies come up with innovations in order to replace the ills of metallic stents.
The future outlook
With cognitive computing, IoT and an increased awareness for multidisciplinary approaches, the future does seem full of bright possibilities. Nevertheless, we must remember, science is far from unlocking the deepest mysteries of our biology. Heart diseases still remain the largest killers, HIV/AIDS still scourge humanity and cancer still remain uncured. While 2017 was another positive step into the future, in the face of Nature, man still needs to remain humble.