How bioelectronic medicine could disrupt the drug industry: 4 thoughts with Dr. Kevin Tracey of the Feinstein Institute

Bioelectronic medicine uses device technology to control cell behavior by analyzing and reproducing electrical signals sent out by the nervous system to the rest of the body.

The technology, still in experimental stages, will not only transform treatment options for disease and injury, it could also cause significant disruptions to the drug industry, according to Kevin Tracey, MD, president and CEO of The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, N.Y.

Dr. Tracey laid the groundwork for bioelectronic medicine in the late 90s through an accidental finding in his lab. Since then, he's led the study on the molecular basis for inflammation and — with colleagues — developed implantable devices capable of sending electrical signals to the body that limit inflammation.

Along with his role as president of the Feinstein Institute — the research hub of Great Neck, N.Y.–based Northwell Health — Dr. Tracey serves as director of the Institute's Laboratory of Biomedical Science and as a professor of molecular medicine and neurosurgery at the Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine in Hempstead, N.Y.

Dr. Tracey spoke with Becker's Hospital Review about the development of bioelectronic medicine and its potential to revolutionize healthcare.

Responses have been lightly edited for style and clarity.

Question: When did bioelectronic medicine get its start?

Dr. Kevin Tracey: The real discovery that launched this field came from an accidental experiment in my lab in 1998. We were working on a molecule to block inflammation, which is a very important issue. Drugs that block inflammation are a $50 billion market. We put the anti-inflammatory molecule into the brains of mice and rats and found it blocked inflammation, as expected. The accident, or surprise of the study, was that the same drug in the brain also blocked inflammation in the body of the animal. We deduced the brain was turning off inflammation in the spleen and liver by sending anti-inflammatory signals in the nerves. This unexpected discovery was the beginning of bioelectronic medicine.

Q: Some of drugmakers' most profitable drugs are used to treat inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and Chrohn's disease. With the cost of prescription drugs steadily rising, how do you think bioelectronic medicine will affect the cost of healthcare?

KT: I think that's an open question. It will be a disruptive phase of the business and new paths will need to be charted on the pricing of bioelectronic devices. All of this will come after we ensure the efficacy and safety of these devices. While it is too early to give a number, big bets are placed on bioelectronic devices' disruption of healthcare.

I applaud the effort of GlaxoSmithKline and Verily Life Sciences — a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet — for investing $715 million into this idea with its new biotech. It places a very high evaluation on the current field and shows at least one company thinks it will influence the finances of the drug world.

Q: To what extent do you see bioelectronic treatments replacing drug treatments in the future?

KT: There is already a huge demand for modulating devices like cardiac stents or pacemakers. I think patients will demand bioelectronic treatments once they are proven effective because people hate the side effects of drugs. I get emails everyday from people inquiring about bioelectronic treatment because they hate side effects. Historically, devices become available in Europe first. We might see them come to Europe in the next few years and to the U.S. soon after that.

The future potential of bioelectronic medicine is based on understanding molecular mechanisms. That's the key — making the devices doesn't drive the field. In the next 20 years, we'll see basic science unravel new basic mechanisms. That's what the drug industry does. It always begins with a basic mechanism. Historically, the device industry hasn't done that. Instead, it's begun with the device. With bioelectronic medicine, we're beginning to take a basic mechanism, just like the drug industry, and drive toward a molecular target — not just a mechanism.

Q: What excites you the most about the field of bioelectronic medicine?

KT: Meeting the patients that have already benefited from it. I've worked on inflammation and neuroscience for 30 years, written hundreds of papers and started several companies. That’s all been wonderful, but none of it replaces the feeling you get from meeting a patient who couldn't get dressed on his own, go to work or play with his kids before being treated with bioelectronic medicine. Seeing how the field has benefited patients — and knowing it's just the tip of the iceberg — is most exciting. It's just the beginning. The potential for this field to benefit millions of people is palpable.

To access an interview with Chad Bouton, managing director of the Feinstein Institute's Center for Bioelectronic Medicine, click here.

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