The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA, USA) recently announced seven teams to work on their ‘Electrical Prescriptions’ (ElectRx) program. The aim of this program is to develop technologies that modulate the activity of peripheral nerves to restore healthy function to organs.

The Bionics Institute is part of a team that includes the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, The University of Melbourne, and Austin Health, which will focus on a bionic solution to inflammatory bowel disease. The seven teams funded by DARPA will use diverse technological approaches to develop ways of treating conditions such as chronic pain, inflammatory diseases, post-traumatic stress, and other illnesses that may not be responsive to traditional treatments.  These conditions are particularly prevalent in war veterans and DARPA is responsible for the development of emerging technologies for the welfare of military personnel and veterans.

These conditions are also widespread in the general community: for instance, 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.

The 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 first stage of this four-year $6.07m project is to develop a detailed map of the vagus nerve’s circuits and how it relates to inflammatory bowel disease. Subsequent stages include the development of a safe and effective neural interface to chronically monitor and stimulate the nerve, and a first-in-human clinical trial of an intelligent (closed-loop), implantable neuromodulation device. 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.

Professor Rob Shepherd, Director of the Bionics Institute and a principal investigator on the project, said, “Therapeutic nerve stimulation for the treatment of inflammatory conditions is a novel approach that requires the specialist team of scientists, engineers, computer scientists and clinicians that we are able to bring together in Melbourne for its successful translation to the clinic,” he said.

DARPA program manager, Dr Doug Weber, said, “The technology DARPA plans to develop through the ElectRx program could fundamentally change the manner in which doctors diagnose, monitor and treat injury and illness.  Instead of relying only on medication, we envision a closed-loop system that would work in concept like a tiny, intelligent pacemaker. It would continually assess conditions and provide stimulus patterns tailored to help maintain healthy organ function, helping patients get healthy and stay healthy using their body’s own systems.”