Google takes aim at arthritis

The prevalence of rheumatic and musculoskeletal conditions are a growing concern, with their implications for healthcare expenditure and the impact on the economy through loss of workdays. Now, arthritis is in Google’s sights as it joins with global pharmaceutical GlaxoSmithKline to develop bioelectronic medicines that could tackle a whole host of ageing concerns.

Statistics from the World Health Organisation show that the prevalence of rheumatoid arthritis in developed countries varies between 0.3% and 1% of the population and osteoarthritis affects nearly 10% of men and 18% of women over the age of 60. With a rising ageing population, the impact of these conditions should not be overestimated.

Last month it was announced that Google’s parent company Alphabet had teamed up with GSK, the largest drug company based in the UK, to form Galvani Bioelectronics. With two research hubs, one in San Francisco and one just outside of the London, and a potential investment of up to £540million over seven years, this development sees Google continue its foray into the lucrative healthcare market.

What is bioelectronic medicine?

Battery-powered implants are used to correct misfiring electrical signals between our nervous system and our organs. These implants are the size of a grain of rice or even smaller and are attached to individual nerves that are not functioning optimally. GSK believe that many health conditions could be treated with bioelectronic medicine; they could open up the airways of asthma sufferers or reduce inflammation that is the cause of many chronic diseases, including arthritis.

Furthermore, bioelectronic medicine can help manage or reverse these health concerns with no side effects, an often significant downside to many of the very costly drugs that have been developed to treat these diseases.

Bioelectronic medicine and rheumatoid arthritis

Recently, scientists at the University of Amsterdam and the Feinstein Institute of Medical Research in New York released clinical trial results that demonstrated that stimulating the vagus nerve, which extends from the brain to the abdomen, with a bioelectronic implant improved disease activity in rheumatoid arthritis patients.

Previously, tests had been performed in animal and in vitro models with very encouraging results, but this was the first human study that showed that stimulating the vagus nerve suppressed production of key cytokines that create inflammation. As well as rheumatoid arthritis, this technology could significantly improve the experience of those suffering from other inflammatory conditions, such as Crohn’s, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s.

So, will this be the future of arthritis treatment? Kris Famm, GSK’s head of bioelectronics, said: “Hopefully in 10 years there will be a treatment option where your doctor will say ‘Why don’t you go for bioelectronic?’, and a surgeon will do a little procedure and it will help the organ to do what it should be doing.”

Professor Cathy Speed offers a customised arthritis service at her London and Cambridge clinics. Arthritis doesn’t have to mean lifelong pain and immobility; seek treatment early for effective management. Call 01223 200 595 to arrange a consultation.