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Ever since the Terminator movies, the American imagination has been captured by the idea of a human-machine hybrid, something like a cyborg. Soon a cyborg may be coming to a home near you. Or maybe that cyborg will be you.
A Google venture known as Verily Life Sciences is investing $700 million with pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Smith Kline to start a new company called Galvanni Bioelectronics, to develop implants that control human organs with electricity.
The purpose of these bioelectric implants is to correct problems in organs with tiny electric shocks, much as pacemakers and implantable defibrillators do now. These devices will attach directly to the nerves regulating organs, and will be powered and controlled wirelessly, reporting data back to doctors through the Internet.
Electronic Devices to Control Organ Activity Already Exist
The Galvanni implants won't be something entirely new. In 2015 the FDA approved an implantable device that stimulates the vagus nerve, to reduce appetite and control obesity. Electrodes placed in the brain have been used for nearly 15 years to control Parkinson's disease, depression, and epilepsy. Pacemakers regulate heartbeat and defibrillators can perform the role of shock paddles already inside the chest in case of cardiac arrest.
What's Different About the New System?
On the other hand, the Galvanni implants will offer a significant advantage over existing technology. The new firm hopes to develop devices that can control nerve impulses to organs much more precisely, and that can also monitor nerve traffic to chart the course of disease. Dr. Moncef Slaoui, who is leaving the chairmanship of Glaxo Smith Kline's international vaccine division to become the future Chairman of the Board of the new company, said in a press release:
"Many of the processes of the human body are controlled by electrical signals firing between the nervous system and the body’s organs, which may become distorted in many chronic diseases. Bioelectronic medicine’s vision is to employ the latest advances in biology and technology to interpret this electrical conversation and to correct the irregular patterns found in disease states, using miniaturised devices attached to individual nerves. If successful, this approach offers the potential for a new therapeutic modality alongside traditional medicines and vaccines."
Initially the company will be pursuing proof of concept in treating a variety of conditions including rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory diseases. These devices will be about the size of a vitamin capsule. They will be attached to nerves with laparoscopic surgery, typically through an incision about 3 mm (1/8 inch) long that doesn't even need to be stitched. A patient would show up for surgery in the morning and go home the same afternoon, washing away a kind of surgical glue a few days later with no more pain and inflammation than are caused by getting a shot with a really large needle (and even that pain would be stopped with a shot of a topic anesthetic such as lidocaine). The new technology would make complicated surgical procedures to "cut nerves" unnecessary, and has the potential to provide non-drug treatment for diabetes.