A Modern Frankenstein: The Brave New World of Electroceuticals

Frog jumping in the air

What did Dr. Victor Frankenstein use to bring his “monster” to life? Electricity. And as much as that seemed far-fetched when Mary Shelley wrote the novel in 1818, the use of electrical devices and electricity to treat diseases has advanced significantly—and continues to advance.

So-called “electroceuticals” are not unheard of. For example, a heart pacemaker is an example of an electroceutical. That is, a medical device that treats diseases or symptoms with electrical impulses.

In addition to pacemakers, there have been cochlear implants for hearing and deep-brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease. Vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) is an area of research for autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.

For example, a company called SetPoint Medical, based in Valencia, California, develops therapies based on precise electrical pulses to stimulate the vagus nerve. It is used to stimulate the body’s innate “inflammatory reflex” for rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and other chronic autoimmune diseases. The company’s miniaturized pulse generator is in clinical trials for rheumatoid arthritis under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s Investigational Device Exemption, and it has also conducted proof-of-concept work in Crohn’s and preclinical work in multiple sclerosis (MS).

And GlaxoSmithKline teamed up with Google’s parent company, Alphabet, to launch Galvani Bioelectronics. Galvani has signed more than 50 partnerships to accelerate development of bioelectronics but is also developing its own device. Galvani is a joint venture between GSK and Google’s Verily to develop bioelectronic devices for inflammatory, metabolic and endocrine disorders.

Recently, researchers at the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University published research about an electronic device that can induce partial limb regeneration in frogs. The research was published in the journal Cell Reports

“At best, adult frogs normally grow back only a featureless, thin, cartilaginous spike,” stated senior author Michael Levin, development biologist at Tufts. “Our procedure induced a regenerative response they normally never have, which resulted in bigger, more structured appendages. The bioreactor device triggered very complex downstream outcomes that bioengineers cannot yet micromanage directly.”

Levin and his team 3D printed the bioreactor from silicon and filled it with hydrogel, which they infiltrated with hydrating silk proteins, then added progesterone. They worked with adult aquatic African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis).

They split the frogs into three groups, experimental, control and sham. For the experimental and sham group, the device was sutured to the frogs right after amputating a back leg. In the experimental group, the bioreactor released progesterone into the site of the amputation. The devices in both groups were removed after 24 hours.

In the experimental groups, observed at various times over nine-and-a-half months, the bioreactor apparently triggered limb regeneration greater than seen in the other groups. Although not a fully-grown limb, it was closer to a full limb than had been previously seen before.

They conducted further molecular and histological studies and found that the regenerated limbs from the treatment group were thicker with more developed bones, innervation, and vascularization.

Levin and his research team will continue working on bioelectric processes to induce spinal cord regeneration and tumor reprogramming. They also plan to conduct similar bioreactor studies in mammals.

Geoffrey Ling, professor of neurology at the Uniformed Services University of Health Science and Johns Hopkins University, and Corinna E. Lathan, co-founder and chief executive officer of AnthroTronix, writing for Scientific American, point out that the cost of implants and surgery can slow the wider adoption of VNS therapy, for example, although there are approaches to make the technology less invasive. This would reduce costs.

As examples, they describe noninvasive, handheld vagal nerve stimulators that have been approved by the FDA for cluster heads and migraine, as well as a nonimplanted device approved in late 2017 to help with opioid withdrawal.

They write, “As more studies and trials examine the mechanisms and effects, VNS and other electroceuticals may ultimately be able to better manage a wide range of chronic conditions, potentially reducing the needs to take medicine for millions of patients.”

Although creating a “Frankenstein monster” from spare body parts and using electricity to bring it to life is unlikely, as this research into electroceuticals suggests, Mary Shelley may have been on to something.

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