Digital health round-up: bioelectronics are closer than you think

Views & Analysis
Bioelectronic medicine promises a new dawn in healthcare

Towards the end of last year, Google's life sciences division Verily and GlaxoSmithKline co-founded Galvani Bioelectronics to develop medicines that harness electrical signals in the body to treat chronic diseases like asthma, arthritis and even gastrointestinal diseases.

At the time, the unveiling of Galvani felt like a new frontier in medicine and, though somewhat difficult to comprehend, something that could genuinely change the lives of millions of people worldwide.

In the time since Galvani's launch, the excitement around so-called 'electroceuticals' has not abated. In fact this year's Academy of Medical Sciences' Annual FORUM Lecture - an event designed to highlight examples of the interface between academia, industry and healthcare - was dedicated to the subject.

The lecture was delivered by renowned neurosurgeon and president and CEO of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, Professor Kevin Tracey.


The hour-long presentation described the journey to bioelectronic medicine, from Rene Descartes theorising on reflex behaviour in animals being caused by 'animal spirits' travelling through nerves, back in the 1600s, to the identification of the vagus nerve as a key modulator of the immune system's role in chronic diseases.

Tracey showcased a recent study of his own involving the modulation of the immune system in rheumatoid arthritis (RA). In a group of patients with RA, a VNS Pulse, a small device developed by Cyberonics for the treatment of epilepsy, was implanted under the collarbone and connected to the left vagus nerve.

The device was then turned on and off for periods of time to determine the role of electrical signals in immune system response.

Turning on the device reduced disease severity in RA patients - something which would return once the device was turned off.

What does this mean for healthcare?

In context, Tracey's work seemed remarkably convincing. Not only did it prove that activating the vagus nerve helped manage the disease, but it also used a readily-available device.

Granted, the study used only seven patients, but it brought into perspective the legitimacy of a field that sounds more like science fiction than real-life science.

For those that doubted Galvani, electroceuticals are not only real, but a lot closer than we thought.

More data backing AliveCor's portable ECG device

AliveCor's Kardia Mobile is a portable electrocardiogram that fixes on to the back of a smartphone. Users place their first and second fingers from each hand on the device's two separate conduction plates to measure their heart rate in real time.

The device has been cleared for some time in the US as a device that can detect atrial fibrillation (AF) - a condition understood to be a leading predictor of stroke and heart disease.

Now, more evidence has been released backing this claim. In a group of around 1,000 participants aged 65 and older with no previous diagnosis of AF, Kardia performed better than the standard of care in detecting cases of AF over the space of a year.

In total, the device detected 19 cases of AF, compared to five in the control group. In addition, many of the cases it did detect were asymptomatic.

In a second study, a similar ability to detect undiagnosed AF was found in a group of around 10,000 patients in Hong Kong. A total of 244 participants were diagnosed with AF - 74 of whom were previously undiagnosed.

Data from a final study, the iREAD study, found the Kardia Mobile device had a 96.6% sensitivity and 94% specificity compared to a 12-lead ECG.

The data comes at a great time for AliveCor, which recently struck a deal with the Mayo Clinic to create a screening tool for Long QT Syndrome.

New IBM-MIT to unlock potential of AI

IBM has made a 10-year, $240 million investment in a new AI lab as part of a partnership with the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The MIT-IBM Watson lab will house 100 AI experts and students tasked with developing AI-based hardware and software solutions, including deep learning algorithms, to increase AI's role in society.

Although not yet unannounced, the lab will invite submissions for research focused on either AI algorithms - specifically in developing those that can use big data as well as limited data sets - or AI physics, mostly in relation to creating new hardware materials.

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About the author:

Marco Ricci is Staff Writer at pharmaphorum. Contact him at: or on Twitter @pharmaphorum_MR

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Marco Ricci

8 September, 2017