Neural Interfacing Manager, Bioelectronics R&D

Bioelectronics: The future of medicine is electric

If Dr Daniel Chew’s work goes to plan, diabetics and sufferers from a host of other diseases may one day no longer need to inject themselves or take pills. He’s working to develop a tiny implant that could read and alter electrical signals that pass along nerves in the body and help control illness.

“Our work has huge potential to treat a vast array of different diseases,” says Chew. “Five years ago, bioelectronic medicine was barely even a concept.” Before he joined GSK, Chew spent a decade in research, which included investigating the use of electronic implants to treat patients with spinal cord injuries and help restore bladder and bowel control. “My work was pre-clinical in the lab but I also worked closely with vets to apply these electronic implants to treat pet dogs that had suffered similar trauma,” he explains.

During post-doctoral research as the University of Cambridge, he began working closely with GSK scientists in a collaborative project, before joining the team fully a year and a half ago.

“For several decades, this kind of treatment was reserved for people who’d undergone severe trauma of the nervous system – brain injuries, strokes – or for Parkinson’s sufferers, where you’d see devices implanted deep into the brain or spinal cord. It was really quite invasive. GSK are now pioneering the concept of using this modality to treat all sorts of diseases, by manipulating very discrete nerves that control specific organs.”

While pacemakers and bladder stimulators (which both use electrical impulses to control the body’s organs) have been around for decades, they target large areas of the body indiscriminately. But the devices on which Chew and his team are working will work more precisely on specific circuits within the nervous system, and adapt and recalibrate as the body responds. They will be more effective, less invasive, and with fewer side effects.

Chew is currently running an experiment in his Stevenage laboratory to implant miniaturised electrodes in order to drive low current through specific organs. “We’re looking at stimulating very specific nerves in the neck to provide fine control to organs such as the heart and lungs– which could eventually translate to treatment for asthma sufferers for example.”

They are not working alone. From the headquarters at Stevenage, GSK is funding and coordinating more than 30 research projects worldwide among academics and institutions. “We’re not only working on producing proof of principle – we want to create a landscape for development of bioelectronic medicine and we know we can’t do it alone.”

GSK’s researchers are also developing cutting-edge materials combined with wireless technology on a miniature scale: the implants will be smaller than a grain of rice. “I like the idea of making obscure concepts a reality,” says Chew. “I believe we will enable many people to have a better lifestyle.”

So how soon does Chew expect this revolutionary treatment to be available? A severe arthritis sufferer has already benefited from similar treatment: an implant in the vagus nerve improved the pain and swelling they felt in their fingers and toes in a matter of weeks. “But we’re talking early days with this,” says Chew. It’s never been done before. We’d like this to be available for human trial within five to 10 years.”

This article first appeared on the Telegraph STEM Awards website.