The potential of successfully treating diabetes, hypertension, cancer and other diseases bioelectronically looms large.
Dr. Kevin J. Tracey is on a mission. He wants to build a Center for Bioelectronic Medicine that he believes – and after seeing his PowerPoint and listening to his case histories, it is hard to refute – that bioelectronic medicine will lead to the successful treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, cancer, lupus, and other diseases that currently require large regimens of drugs.
Tracey, who is the president and CEO of Feinstein Institute of Medical Research; a professor of neurosurgery and molecular medicine at Hofstra North Shore –LIJ School of Medicine, and senior vice president of research at North Shore-LIJ Health System -- was the keynote speaker at Day One of the WCA’s Health Tech ’15. He managed to hold 300+ people on the edge of their seats for close to an hour, enthralling one and all by some of his discoveries, research, and clinical trials in a field that is gaining serious attention worldwide.
What exactly is bioelectornic medicine? It is a way of using the body’s own control mechanisms to treat inflammation and disease. By implanting an electrical device that stimulates the vagus nerve and prevents production of TNF (a type of cell that triggers the immune reaction), patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis experience remarkable relief from pain. So much so, that those who might not have been able to lift a pencil because of devastating pain, could have their lives turned around. They can resume working, participating in sports, and doing the everyday things that they could not do prior to this therapy, and despite the drugs they were taking.
“When we saw how molecules in the brain [when stimulated by the device] transmit electrical signals that could change the behavior of other cells, we knew we invented a new way of thinking about treatment,” said Tracey. “One of the most important reflexes is our body’s response to injury or infection,” and that is controlled by the brain. “The brain takes care of things you never think about, like blood pressure, diabetes, heart rate, reflexes...If nerves transmit electrical signals [that cause molecules to act in a different way] you don’t need a drug.”
By way of example, he told the story of treating a man in Bosnia by implanting a tiny electrical device in his neck, in the vagus nerve. “We programmed it to target TNF nerve (a small subset of nerves). Prior to that, the man complained that he couldn’t play with his kids, couldn’t even pick up a paddle to play ping pong. After the implant, he responded well. Three years later he is back to driving a truck, playing tennis and playing with his kids.” A new man! So, imagine how this therapy could be used to treat diseases other than rheumatoid arthritis. What’s in the way? According to Tracey, the regulatory climate and cost.
For example, “It takes $600 million to $1 billion to test drugs successfully [which is necessary because] from developing drugs, we understand the process of disease...” The advantage of this type of research is that it can be limited to one tissue over a short period of time, and he said it doesn’t cause the side effects that drugs do. “The hope and promise is to convert information about electronic impulses and the release of specific molecules.”
Dr. Tracey said he is looking to raise $350 million to build his new Center, and that he figures he’ll need a quarter of a million square feet of space. Considering that Westchester is a hub of health tech and biotech, and that we have over 5 million square feet of vacant commercial space, perhaps we could entice him to set up shop here? “It would certainly be better for my commute,” he chuckled.