Rewriting Life

Implanted Device Controls Rheumatoid Arthritis

A nerve-stimulating electrical implant could give people a drug-free alternative to current treatments.

Many chronic conditions require patients to take expensive drugs that have unpleasant or dangerous side effects and don’t always work.

In early human tests, SetPoint Medical has found that an electronic implant helped reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis in six of eight patients. The company, which is based in Valencia, California, is one of many groups exploring the potential of electronic implants to treat diseases by delivering pulses to nerves that regulate organ or body functions.

bio electronic implant
Body electric: This electric implant can stimulate nerves in the body to regulate organ function.

Earlier this month, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, medical-device manufacturer Boston Scientific, and others invested $27 million in SetPoint. Although nerve-stimulating devices have been available for many years, GSK and academic researchers argue that the field of bioelectronic therapies is just beginning to ramp up and that in the future many conditions could be treated with electrical impulses.

external collar
Outside influence: SetPoint is developing a new implant that can be charged with an external collar, which also provides wireless communication with an iPad app to monitor and adjust treatment.

The arthritis-regulating device is implanted in the patient’s neck and wraps around the vagus nerve, a bundle of nerve fibers that communicates sensory information from internal organs and controls involuntary body functions such as heart rate and digestion. The device stimulates the nerve at regular intervals in a particular pattern that regulates the immune system, which is overactive in rheumatoid arthritis.

Brain implants have previously been used to treat movement disorders and some psychiatric conditions (see “Brain Implants Can Rest Misfiring Circuits”). Devices are also used to stimulate nerves outside the brain. An electrical device that stimulates the vagus nerve is already used to treat some cases of drug-resistant epilepsy and depression, and another is undergoing testing as a treatment for congestive heart failure. But SetPoint is covering new ground by testing peripheral-nerve stimulation as a treatment for immune disease.

“The industry is expanding rapidly,” says Kenneth Gustafson, a biomedical engineer at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, who is studying electrical nerve stimulation as a way to treat bladder dysfunction. The precedent set by pacemakers, deep brain implants, and other such devices enables researchers to “take that existing technology and repurpose it for all these new applications,” he says.

Researchers say the main advantage of the electrical devices over drug treatments is that they may not cause as many side effects. “Electrostimulation can be much more selective,” Gustafson says. “The targets are neural circuits that are not behaving as they should.” Drugs, on the other hand, often affect many pathways in the body.

SetPoint has been running animal and human trials using devices developed by another company to treat epilepsy. In the future, trials will use a proprietary device that is smaller and specifically engineered for the infrequent stimulation needed to treat rheumatoid arthritis. The company will soon launch another small patient study to test stimulation in patients with Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune condition that attacks the gastrointestinal system.

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.

Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Rewriting Life

Reprogramming our bodies to make us healthier.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Premium.
  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look. Exclusive early access to stories.

    Insider Conversations. Listen in as our editors talk to innovators from around the world.

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.