The healing power of electronics
16 OCT 2021
Effective treatments already exist for many diseases today. However, in many cases patients still have to live with inadequate treatment or endure severe side effects. Just think of chronic inflammatory diseases.
Here is where bioelectronics, a relatively young scientific discipline but with great potential to solve unmet medical needs, offers hope for the future. Bioelectronics deals with modulating electrical signals that the body uses to communicate and that can be utilized for counteracting diseases in ways that drugs cannot. The field requires both biomedical knowledge and expertise in electronic components. We at EMD Electronics are also conducting research with partners on such bioelectronic medical devices. Our many years of material and health expertise are useful here.
New pillar of medicine
Although medical treatments are available today for many diseases, underlying disease mechanisms often remain obscure. This is true for many neurological diseases or chronic inflammatory diseases. Those who suffer from them know that the symptoms can often only be alleviated. And the side effects of common drugs are often very strong. Wouldn’t it be nice for patients if they could simply receive an electronic implant that would enable the body to heal itself?
What sounds like science fiction has been a research topic at EMD Electronics for a while now. I’m talking about bioelectronics. The focus of this new field is on finding new ways of interfacing components from microelectronics with biological systems. The therapeutic agent is not made up of molecules or cells, but of microimplants that influence the physiology of cells with electrical impulses. After all, biology and electronics have one thing in common. Electrical impulses are used for information processing both in electronic circuits and in biological systems. This is where bioelectronics comes in. It’s the bridge between the two fields and it could develop into a new pillar of medicine.
Nerve stimulation through microimplants
Neurostimulators are a good example of an existing application. Nerve cells are stimulated with electrical impulses delivered by microimplants. One particular interesting target for neurostimulators is the vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve in the human body. It extends from the head to the abdomen. Sending electrical impulses to it could have the potential to for example modulate inflammatory responses.
Since bioelectronics is still a fairly young scientific discipline, a great deal of work still needs to be done. The main focus of research is currently on improved implantable biosensors and more intelligent steering units. The challenge is to develop the implants in such a way that they can be used reliably and safely for a long time in the body. In addition, energy requirements for such devices are continuously increasing due to demands of higher computing power and data communication. They must also permit increasingly sensitive recording. This is because novel bioelectronic devices will not only be used for stimulation, but also for monitoring the patient’s disease state. Combining nerve signals with other accessible physiological datasets can help create a holistic understanding of disease conditions.
Collaborations drive solutions
On the one hand, to boost energy efficiency in neurostimulators and enable high resolution recording, we are collaborating with the start-up Innervia Bioelectronics, a subsidiary of Inbrain Bioelectronics. Innervia relies on the material “reduced graphene oxide”, also known as graphene, which was first produced in 2004. This material, which consists of carbon atoms, is only one atom thick per layer, conducts well and is flexible. With graphene, power consumption could be significantly lower, thus enabling new therapies based on particularly energy-demanding modulation strategies. At the same time, the electrodes should last in the body for many years.
On the other hand, we have entered into another collaboration in this field with the start-up Neuroloop, a subsidiary of B. Braun SE. Here, we are jointly developing a new generation of highly selective neurostimulators that are able to identify disease-relevant nerve signals and subsequently modulate them with high selectivity. The Neuroloop device features a novel differentiated multi-channel cuff electrode based on thin film technology. Thanks to the high selectivity of neurostimulation, personalized treatments would thus also be possible. Processing various physiological data sets could also provide a holistic understanding of individual disease trajectories. This means that in the future, continuous data gathering from neurostimulators and its analysis will allow remote patient monitoring and therefore improved patient outcomes.
This is a perfect example of how innovation is truly powered by data and digital and how EMD Electronics is advancing on this groundbreaking field to improve patients’ lives.
Technology with future potential
We at EMD Electronics therefore see bioelectronics as a field of work with great future potential. That’s also why it is one of the innovation fields of our Innovation Center. This is where we bring together experts from our business sectors with external startups, visionaries and companies from around the world to work jointly on forward-looking innovations. In bioelectronics, we’re among the pioneers thanks to our many years of expertise in materials and healthcare, and the cutting-edge neurostimulation technologies of our external cooperation partners. And perhaps we’ll succeed in ushering in a new era of medicine together with the aid of bioelectronic medical devices and in further improving the quality of care for patients with various chronic diseases.