July 29, 2014, by Editor

Pharmacy – A cyborg era of stimulating research

This week’s blog is from Dr Frankie Rawson, who is the Leverhulme Research Fellow at the Pharmacy School in Nottingham.  Here is his Blog:

For those of you that are “Trekkie” fans you will be aware of a collection of alien races known as the “Borg”. My embarrassing confession is that I am a little bit of a Star Trek fan. The “Borg” is a collection of alien races that have been turned into cybernetic organisms, partly built of organic tissue coupled with mechanic and electronic technology, forming one being. So, what has Star Trek got to do with pharmacy? Well, one area of research that I am excited about is electroceutics, the ability to control nerve signals that characterise a disease with electronic devices[1].

Biology evolved to use electricity as a primary means of rapid cellular communication. The basic concepts of this behaviour are well understood and arise from the selective control and movement of ions from the inside and outside of nerve cells. This results in electrical charge hopping down neurones. Scientists are now becoming aware that certain disease states are underpinned by a “fingerprint” pattern of neuronal responses. There is excitement within the scientific community that if the electronic signatures can be controlled then there is a possibility of controlling the disease state. It is this ability to control cellular function by controlling nerve signals that has been defined as electroceutics. GlaxoSmithKline are taking this electrocutical concept of treating disease seriously and have invested a significant sum and launched a million pound prize for advancing this field[1]. The idea of treating disease with an electroceutic may not sound as crazy as one thinks! Consider that we are already living with electroceutical products, for example the cochlear implant has made a significant impact by helping people who are profoundly deaf to sense sound. This was achieved by implanting technology that can electrically wire the cochlear and stimulate the nerve fibres aiding patients to hear.

The merging of electronics and organic material is already happening, however most current electroceutical products are rather broad and non-specific. Therefore, if we are to truly control the nerve pattern fingerprints that characterise a disease, we will need to move to single cellular control. This is where my research interests can contribute to this grand challenge. My previous research has been geared to developing nano-electrodes which can interface with single cells. This intimate contact gives us the ability to sense cellular events electrically but also gives us the scope to actuate cellular processes at an equivalent scale to that of the chemical reactions taking place in and on cells. A real world example of this was recently reported and published in Nature Materials[2]. This was achieved by utilising transparent organic cell stimulating and sensing transistors (O-CSTs). The next challenge will be to incorporate such technology into an in-vivo environment on multiple cells, forming a real human “Borg” with the merging of nano-electronic and organic materials.

It appears that the forward imagination of science fiction authors to dream up a future of technology, such as that epitomised by the “Borg” may one day be a reality. Thankfully, a major difference in the real world of the merging of nano-electronics and humans will be for progress of health, well-being, and scientific technology unlike the “Trekkie Borg” who conquers and assimilates other races. This new way of thinking may open up a paradigm shift in pharmaceutical treatment, in addition to the standard armoury of drugs currently used to treat disease.

[1]          K. Famm, B. Litt, K. J. Tracey, E. S. Boyden, M. Slaoui, Nature 2013, 496, 159-161.

[2]          V. Benfenati, S. Toffanin, S. Bonetti, G. Turatti, A. Pistone, M. Chiappalone, A. Sagnella, A. Stefani, G. Generali, G. Ruani, D. Saguatti, R. Zamboni, M. Muccini, Nature Materials 2013, 12, 672-680.



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