Next-Level Bioelectric Medicine

In recent months, some scientists have found themselves asking: “Do we let this pandemic slow down the science that could help people live healthier lives?” Last month, organizers, mentors and 29 researchers decided the answer was ‘no’ and showed up for the first all-virtual Ideas Lab, an experiment in itself. 

The lab was hosted by the Foundation for Research on Information Technologies in Society (IT’IS), with funding from and in partnership with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Common Fund’s Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Condition (SPARC) program. The program is designed to advance bioelectronic medicine,  therapeutic devices that modulate electrical activity in the peripheral nervous system to treat organ dysfunction. 

The SPARC Ideas Lab was originally scheduled as an in-person event. But, like many others, the organizers decided to convert it to a virtual one rather than cancel it. The lab brought together mathematical modelers, experimental scientists and clinicians, among others. Participants committed themselves to five full days in front of their computers in the name of the workshop’s goal: bridge the divide between experimentalists and computational modelers to accelerate the development of implantable devices that treat diseases by stimulating nerves. 

By the end of the week, new teams had formed around intriguing problems and siloed scientists who were once strangers were now committing to writing proposals as a way to bring their ideas to life. On Friday afternoon, even after so many days in front of their computer screens, workshop mentor Grace Peng, Ph.D., says: “no one wanted to end the call.”

Forming a Community

The sense of community that developed online was more than the organizers and mentors expected. “The virtual environment really helped facilitate discussions and collaboration more than a traditional in-person meeting,” says Peng, who is an NIH Program Director, Mathematical Modeling, Simulation and Analysis program, at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). Workshop organizer Andrew Weitz, Ph.D., agreed. “There was more productivity and atmosphere than I had anticipated for a virtual event. Some really exciting ideas came out of it,” says Weitz, who is an NIH Program Director at NIBIB. 

Weitz also says the scientific focus of this workshop was crucial to discovering new ways to use existing data for making predictions about how to develop or improve bioelectronic medicines. “In order to make those predictions, we need computational models, which are often developed by different communities of researchers than the ones who are generating the data.”

Neuron mapping of a rat heart (Moss, et. al. 2019).

Advancing Bioelectric Medicine

About 200,000 people per year receive implantable pacemakers that correct potentially deadly cardiac arrhythmias through electrical stimulation. It’s a bioelectronic medicine therapy that’s more than 60 years old. Today, hundreds of clinical trials are underway looking at a range of implantable devices that use electrical stimulation to treat a whole host of diseases — from depression to seizures and sleep apnea. Despite these commercial successes, the release of new devices remains a challenge — often because there is insufficient information regarding which neural targets influence organ function, and how to precisely adjust these neural connections to achieve the intended effect. 

That is about to change thanks to the merging of advances in science and technology, as well as more than a billion dollars in investment on the part of both the public and private sectors. In the next 10 years, tiny implantable devices attached to nerves could become mainstream; becoming an alternative to pharmaceuticals as a primary treatment of some diseases by making organs function better and longer.

Bridging the Gap

The efforts of the participants of last month’s SPARC Ideas Lab also offer promise of advances to come. “It’s really optimal if these groups work together because the modelers can say: ‘I need this type of data to inform my model. Can you generate that data?’ It’s a back and forth process that hasn’t been happening largely because these communities are often not talking to each other,” Weitz says.

For their part, 70 percent of 20 survey respondents say they met three or more new collaborators, 70 percent say the projects will advance the fields of study of the collaborators involved in it and 25 percent believe they are involved in a project that might just be considered an entirely new field. (We love it when that happens.) Peng, who helped to create SPARC, says computational modeling is the key. “This event was a success in its potential to move the field forward by leaps-and-bounds.”