Curated by UCL

Death to drugs (and side effects): electrical implants could be the future of medication

If you’ve ever glanced at the back of a medicine packet, or read through that tightly folded, microprint advice slip that comes wrapped around your blister pack of seemingly innocuous tablets, you could be forgiven for wondering if drug-based medicine…

If you’ve ever glanced at the back of a medicine packet, or read through that tightly folded, microprint advice slip that comes wrapped around your blister pack of seemingly innocuous tablets, you could be forgiven for wondering if drug-based medicine is a bit of an imprecise science.

You’ve got a headache, so naturally you reach for the paracetamol. An hour later, you’re feeling much better. Unless you’re very unlucky and suddenly develop a fever, or nausea, or “unusual bleeding or bruising” (as opposed to the normal, everyday kind). Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor (SSRIs) could literally save your life if you suffer from depression. Unless you then drink grapefruit juice, which can effectively boost the dosage of an antidepressant from therapeutic to toxic.

According to Kris Famm, president of Galvani Bioelectronics, about 90 per cent of the work that goes into developing a drug isn’t focused on treating a disease, but on working out how to prevent or mitigate the adverse effects the drug might have on other parts of the body. His answer to this problem? Bioelectronics: implants that deliver electrical impulses directly to the nerves that control particular organs, treating a patient’s condition while bypassing the brain and circulatory system altogether.

“More than two billion people suffer from chronic diseases where bioelectronic medicines could one day be part of the therapeutic solution,” says Famm. “Our bodies use electrical signals in nerves to tune their functions; our society uses the same principles to control devices and systems all around us – these worlds will [inevitably] meet.”

Bioelectronics, as a new field of medicine, presents challenges – not least how to power the devices after they are implanted (though in the future Famm suggests we might charge implants wirelessly, as we now can with phones; or even with glucose from the patient’s body or energy generated by their movements, like a self-winding watch). But the potential advantages over traditional molecular medicine are clear: no side-effects, no long trial-and-error periods adjusting dosages, and all the grapefruit juice you can drink. And Galvani Bioelectronics has some influential backers behind it – Verily (an Alphabet company) launched Galvani with GlaxoSmithKline, and is backed by investment of up to £540 million over the next seven years.

Three big questions with Kris Famm:
What is your biggest pet peeve about the health industry and why?

That patents and open, collaborative innovation are at odds. Instead, they can and should reinforce each other towards achieving patient benefits.

What advice can you give someone struggling to change or evolve their organisation?

Start small, but quickly. Early successes give reasons to believe and contagious momentum.

What are you most excited about at WIRED Health this year?

Exchanging ideas and approaches about how to innovate in healthcare – bringing together technology, biology, clinical, and system innovation practitioners could challenge and inspire all of us!