Neurotech Branches Out

News that British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline has started a venture fund to invest in “bioelectronic” technologies [see article, p1] represents a positive development for the neurotechnology industry. The new fund, and the efforts of GSK’s Bioelectronics R&D unit, not only raises the specter of a new source of funding and partnership for neurotech startups, it opens the door to an expansion of the role that neurotech devices have played in healthcare.

Traditionally, neurostimulation devices achieve their function by altering or generating neural signals within the nervous system. But clearly what GSK and other bio/pharm companies are looking for is a way to use the nervous system as a conduit to physiological functions other than neurological.

The SetPoint Medical device promises to do this for a range of disorders including rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis, diabetes, and heart disease. This it accomplishes by exploiting the inflammatory reflex, which senses infection, tissue injury, and inflammation and relays this information to the CNS. The CNS then reflexively increases neural signaling peripherally through the vagus nerve and splenic nerve, which extensively innervate the spleen and other visceral organs. The signal is transmitted to a novel population of T cells in the spleen, which in turn direct effector cells including monocytes and macrophages to reduce their production of the mediators that initiate and perpetuate inflammation.

A similar effect occurs with other organs of the body. A team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently reported in Cell Reports that reciprocal signaling takes place between neurons in the sympathetic nervous system and tissues that the nerves connect to, including islet cells in the pancreas.

“We knew that sympathetic neurons need molecular signals from the tissues that they connect with, to grow and survive,” said Rejji Kuruvilla, a biologist at JHU and a coauthor of the paper. “What we did not know was whether the neurons would reciprocally signal to the target tissues to instruct them to grow and mature.” Using sympathetic neurons and islet cells grown together in a culture dish, the researchers observed that islet cells move toward the nerves and identified norepinephrine as the nerve signal that causes the movement of the islet cells.

Kuruvilla said these studies, identifying sympathetic nerves as a critical player in organizing pancreatic cells during development and influencing their later function, could add to a better understanding of treating diabetes in the future.

We would not be surprised to see a bio/pharm company agree with that assessment in a big way in the future. 

James Cavuoto

Editor and Publisher

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