A 2013 IMS Health study found that $200 billion in healthcare costs are attributed to patients skipping their medication. We covered a bioelectronics solution Proteus that addresses this issue through its ingestible biosensors. But what if much of that cost could be avoided by NOT taking medication? Such is one of the great promises of bioelectronics. Conventional medical practice dictates that symptoms of diseases are tackled by the immune system, which in turn is spurred into action by drugs. Bioelectronics adds a new variable to this equation, electric impulse. The idea is based on the recently established fact that the immune system can be directly manipulated by delivering precise electric signals through specific nerves to targeted organs. This technology not only holds the potential to treat conventionally incurable diseases such as cancer, but it also hopes to replace conventional drug therapy along with its side effects. Kevin Tracey, a neurosurgeon trained at Cornell University, is the man responsible for this groundbreaking discovery (for more background, read Michael Behar’s amazing feature on how the nervous system has been hacked in the NY Times Magazine) . After having proven his conjecture about the relationship between the immune system and the electric impulses originating from the brain back in 1998, he went on to map the complex circuit from the vagus nerve down to the mitochondria within cells related with tumor-necrosis-factor inflammation in the 11 years that followed. Tracey’s research culminated into SetPoint, a company that successfully treated rheumatoid arthritis in humans using bioelectronics in 2009. This was done by implanting an inch long, corkscrew shaped device to the vagus nerve on the left side of the neck. The implant was then connected to a dollar-size ‘pulse generator’ holding a battery and a microprocessor in order to deliver small electric impulses at regular intervals. This arrangement has since evolved into the ‘Microregulator’ that combines the ‘pulse generator’ with the implant to form one compact device.
SetPoint has raised $43M from a mixture of VC funding (Morgenthaler, Covidien Ventures, Boston Scientific etc.) and debt financing. GlaxoSmithKline also invested $5 million in SetPoint in August 2013. (Glaxo has set up a $50 million fund to support the emerging field of bioelectronics. Notably though, Glaxo’s total R. & D. expenditure was a mammoth $6.5 billion in 2013 which raises questions about what Glaxo is really betting on.) SetPoint is currently focused on treating patients with inflammatory diseases, but in the future hopes to develop a ‘read/write’ system with neurological impulses in order to use the body to heal itself – a potentially important milestone in human history, if achieved. Although often forgotten amid wearable critics and fanboys alike that fawn and yawn at the rise and fall of any consumer wearable with a Kickstarter page, companies like Proteus and SetPoint are delivering global, life-altering, market-making innovation that represent the massive potential for wearables applied to big problems in huge industries.