A bionic approach to inflammatory bowel disease


Bionic technologies have the potential to treat a wide range of conditions and diseases that affect the organs of the body by modulating the activity of peripheral nerves through therapeutic electrical stimulation. The peripheral nervous system is the network of neurons outside the brain and spinal cord. Part of this system is responsible for the normal functioning of visceral organs and regulating their responses to changes in the internal environment.

Devices that modulate the activity of peripheral nerves to restore healthy organ function could replace the use of pharmaceutical agents and also manage conditions currently not treatable with traditional methods. This approach offers exciting possibilities for future treatments for inflammatory and metabolic diseases, as well as chronic pain.

Our Research

In 2015, we commenced an exciting collaborative project to create novel electrodes and stimulation strategies to treat bowel disease. This four-year project is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (USA).

The incidence of inflammatory bowel diseases, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, is increasing, with a huge cost in direct health care as well as personal suffering. In Australia, there are approximately 61,000 people living with inflammatory bowel diseases, while in the USA the annual incidence is estimated at between 13 and 17 per 100,000 people.

A Melbourne-based team, led by Professor John Furness at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, aims to explore electrical stimulation of a major nerve supplying the intestine (the vagus nerve) as a means of reducing an inflammatory response.

The Bionics Institute, University of Melbourne, and Austin Health are project partners, contributing expertise in bionic device development, mathematical modelling and feedback control, and surgical knowledge, respectively.

The Bionics Institute will contribute to the development of a safe and effective neural interface to constantly monitor the state of bowel inflammation and stimulate the nerve accordingly. The ultimate aim of this project is to produce an intelligent (closed-loop), implantable neuromodulation device ready for a first-in-human clinical trial in four years’ time.

Research team

Principal investigators Prof Rob ShepherdA/Prof James Fallon, Dr Sophie Payne

Research engineersOwen Burns, Ross Thomas


Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (USA)



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