Bionics Institute’s Dr Sophie Payne and her team are investigating how a new medical device developed at the Institute can be used to electrically trigger the body’s natural anti-inflammatory response to treat this debilitating auto-immune disease.

Drug resistance

Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues. Currently there is no cure and drug treatments can cause unpleasant side effects. To compound this issue, many patients don’t respond to treatments and continue to live with pain and inflammation in their joints. Rheumatoid arthritis can be so severe young mums can’t even hold their babies, due to the pain and swelling in their hands.

Is electricity the answer?

Sophie explains: “Our research looks at how we can use a unique medical device to deliver electricity to alter nerve activity and stimulate specific areas of the body. This allows targeted treatment of diseases that don’t respond to drug treatments”.

Harnessing the vagus nerve

The device targets the vagus nerve which runs from the brain to the gut and controls many processes in the body including the autoimmune inflammatory response. Vagus nerve stimulation has already been used extensively to treat depression and epilepsy. Bionics Institute researchers have recently developed a new vagus nerve simulation device to treat inflammatory bowel disease, which has been adapted to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

 “The beauty of this device is that it kickstarts the body’s natural reflexes, which means there are fewer side effects than with drug treatments.”

Figure. Vagus nerve device placement

Dampening the immune system

This device has been adapted to treat rheumatoid arthritis with the aim of calming the body’s overactive immune response to prevent long-term damage to joints, and improve mobility for patients to help give them back control of their lives.

Next steps

With support from clinical collaborator A/Prof Evange Romas, Sophie and the team’s next steps are to consolidate preclinical data plan for a clinical trial, where the device will be implanted into people with drug-resistant rheumatoid arthritis using keyhole surgery.

“Eventually, we hope that this device will help people with rheumatoid arthritis live free of inflammation and pain".