Why it’s time to take electrified medicine seriously
Hope for millions experiencing a broad range of previously untreatable diseases may be near thanks to a breakthrough that seems more science fiction than medical reality.
When the disease plaguing her digestive system was at its worst, Kelly Owens once had to rush to the bathroom 17 separate times in the course of a few hours. By the time she was 25, her crippling case of Crohn’s disease had given her arthritis from her ankles all the way up to her jaw and fingertips. The dozens of drugs she took helped a bit, but the brutal side effects included nausea, fatigue and weight gain.
Nights were the worst. On good nights, Owens woke up to excruciating pain and couldn’t fall asleep again, trying in vain to find a comfortable position. On bad nights, the diarrhea and vomiting made her so dehydrated, she needed to be hospitalized.
“My body was at war with me,” she says.
Worse, the powerful drugs she took were weakening her bones: at 25 years old, she had the frail and weakened skeleton of an 80-year-old. Owens, who was diagnosed at age 13, eventually developed resistance to all of the drugs she tried, and in February 2017, she says, her doctors told her, “We are out of [treatments] to try; there is nothing left because you have been on them all.”
The remarkable convergence of advances in bioengineering and neurology has resulted in a fast-developing way to treat chronic diseases, known as bioelectronic medicine. These advances allow scientists to identify specific nerves and implant devices that can be activated when needed to stimulate or dial down their activity; that in turn controls cells in organs targeted by those nerves that regulate the body’s many immune and metabolic responses.
While some bioelectronic, or electroceutical, therapies already exist to treat conditions such as headaches, certain cases of depression, as well as chronic and sinus pain, the new wave of electricity-based strategies could expand to help people with some of the most widespread chronic diseases in the world, including high blood pressure, arthritis, diabetes, some forms of blindness and even dementia.
For Owens, the new approach has been life-changing. After getting an electrical regulator implanted in her chest, she is now living pain-free for the first time in decades. Two weeks after she received the implant, doctors turned it on to a frequency customized to stimulate a specific nerve at just the right energy level to keep her immune system under control. That evening, she forgot to take her pain medication because she wasn’t in pain.
Since Crohn’s is caused by an overactive inflammatory response in the gut, the goal is to inhibit that inflammation by dialing down the electrical impulses zipping between immune cells around the gut so that the inflammatory response dies down and aggravated gut tissue can start to heal, leading to fewer symptoms and less pain. Though intriguing, this idea was still an untested theory. But Owens figured it was worth a try.
Owens is now in her second year of clinical remission. She no longer takes any medications for her Crohn’s disease and has gone from needing her husband’s help to put on deodorant and button a shirt to working out regularly at the gym and going on long runs.
Her latest colonoscopy showed that half of the damaged tissue in her colon had healed; without the constant barrage from the immune system, her digestive system is gradually recovering and functioning the way it should. “Now my body just works and I don’t have to think about using it; it just does what it’s supposed to do,” Owens says. “That’s still mind-blowing for me.”
She now turns on the regulator in her chest for only five minutes in the morning and five minutes before going to bed. She started with four sessions of electrical stimulation a day, but found herself forgetting the ones at noon and dinnertime and realized she didn’t need them.
She’s aware that the technology is still nascent and still has to prove itself in more trials. But to anyone who might hear that and become skeptical that electroceutical treatments can actually work, she says, “Patients are just really eager to have a new option. And if it’s a placebo effect, all I can say is that it’s a hell of a placebo.”