TR: Research suggests that antidepressants are effective partly because they stimulate neurogenesis. So companies such as BrainCells, based in San Diego, CA, are screening compounds that promote growth of neural stem cells in the brain. They say these drugs could bring new therapies for depression and, eventually, neurodegenerative diseases.
ZL: It’s an exciting area, and the investment community is certainly interested. But the jury is still out.
TR: We’re also starting to see a new kind of therapy for brain-related illnesses – electrical stimulation. Various types of stimulation devices are now on the market to treat epilepsy, depression, and Parkinson’s disease. What are some of the near- and far-term technologies we’ll see with this kind of device?
ZL: We’re seeing explosive growth in this area because scientists are overcoming many of the hurdles in this area. One example is longer battery life, so devices don’t have to be surgically implanted every five years. Researchers are also developing much smaller devices. Advanced Bionics, for example, has a next-generation stimulator in trials for migraines.
In the neurodevice space, the obesity market is coming on strong. Several companies are working on this, including Medtronics and Leptos Biomedical. In obesity, even a small benefit is a breakthrough, because gastric bypass surgery [one of the most common treatments for morbid obesity] is so invasive.
In the next 10 years, I think we’ll start to see a combination of technologies, like maybe a brain stimulator that releases L-dopa [a treatment for Parkinson’s disease]. Whether that’s viable is a whole other question, but that possibility is there because of the microelectronics revolution.
The real breakthrough will come from work on new electrodes. This will transform neurostimulator applications. With these technologies, you can create noninvasive devices and target very specific parts of the brain. It’s like going from a Model T to a Ferrari. Those technologies will present the real competition for drugs.