Electroceuticals or pharmaceuticals?

The year is 2025. You walk out of your GP consultation having decided between a pharmaceutical and an electroceutical. You chose the electroceutical because all it means is a one off minimally invasive implant, compared to a complicated regime of pharmaceuticals to follow every day, with a variety of side effects.

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This could be a genuine future scenario. Electroceuticals is a new term for bioelectronics medicine that utilises electrical stimulation to affect and modify biological functions. The origins of this field reach back to examples such as Dr Albert Hyman and Dr Ake Senning implanting hollow insulated wires and pacemakers to treat cardiac arrhythmia syndrome in 1933 and 1958 respectively, with Senning’s patient actually outliving his practitioner. Now, electroceuticals are tipped to cause fewer side effects, fewer compliance issues, and be quicker to develop than pharmaceuticals.

Although electroceuticals is still an emerging field, we’re already seeing some big companies start to invest in it. For example GlaxoSmithKline(GSK) launched a $1million prize for teams who could produce a miniaturized, implantable device that can read specific electrical signals and stimulate an organ to perform a specific function reliably for 60 days. Additionally they have invested $50million in-house, in numerous university partnerships, and have SetPoint Medical in their portfolio, a California-based company that has developed a novel implantable neuromodulation device for treating chronic inflammatory disease. GSK also sees the opportunity for electroceuticals as a channel to gather data on electrical impulses and feed that data back into their research.

Another large player investing heavily in electroceuticals is the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US. They have pledged $248 million via their Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions (SPARC) common fund, to investigate the body’s electrical wiring and develop future electroceuticals.

Looking forwards, initial waves of research are likely to focus on exploring causal relationships between electrical signals and biomarker results in specific diseases; later moving towards the effects of altering, blocking, and supplementing patterns of electrical signals. Potential applications for electroceuticals seem broad, from chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma and arthritis, to pain and potentially cancer.

So will “Big Pharma” diversify into electroceuticals to capitalise on a new market, either to use in combination with their traditional drugs or to complement their revenues? This seems a similar dilemma as to whether oil companies should invest in biofuel research. Both traditional methods in the Oil and Healthcare industries may have their revenues cannibalised by the newer methods. It is too soon to accurately predict to what extent electroceuticals will create a new market, and how much it will consume the traditional pharmaceutical market. But with healthcare costs for chronic conditions a ongoing issue, and patients growing increasingly averse to taking ‘synthetic’ pharmaceuticals, it seems possible that these tiny electronic devices could provide the answer for treating chronic diseases in the future.

Philip Arvanitis

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