Treating diseases wirelessly

Could new ways of tapping into the body's electrical signals open up new therapies?...
20 November 2017

Interview with 

Dr Frankie Rawson - Nottingham University

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The human body is intrinsically electrical and almost every one of our cells generates a voltage across its cell membrane that’s used by the cell to communicate with other cells - which is what nerve cells do - or to carry out other important functions, like pumping food into cells and pumping waste out. And as our knowledge of this field grows, scientists are realising that many diseases are associated with a disruption in these electrical processes. So if we can reverse those changes, it might be possible to slow down some diseases; or, by exaggerating these changes, it might be possible to kill off harmful cells, like cancers. Frankie Rawson from Nottingham University is developing new ways to manipulate these electrical effects in the body; it’s a field called “electroceuticals”, and he spoke to Katie Haylor about it.

Frankie - All your cells are electrically active in one form or the other. In your central nervous system it’s based on ion movement, but also cells shuttle individual electrons around just like electrons moving in a copper wire that powers a lightbulb. One thing to note is, in disease there’s a malfunctioning in your electrical communication systems. What changes in those electrical signals is not very well understood. And we’re starting to understand that which means we can now start to develop the technology to modulate that to try and negate problems associated with disease.

Katie - Bioelectric devices are already available: from the well-established pacemaker to the bionic eye that’s not yet currently on the market. But these devices require invasive surgery to get them to where they’re needed in the body which has it’s drawbacks…

Frankie - Doing invasive surgery is not necessarily a good thing: 1) it leads to chances of infection, 2) the electrical components doesn’t necessarily last long so it needs replacement. So if we can develop wireless tools we can avoid the detrimental effects associated with invasive surgery.

Katie - By exploiting the electrical conductivity of cells in the body one of Frankie’s aims is that these electrochemical based wireless tools can be applied to treating diseases including cancer…

Frankie - There’s changes in the way that cancer move electrons around during their disease so what we plan on doing and addressing is if you can control that electron transfer and those electrical communication systems in cancer, you can also halt cell proliferation or even induce cell death to actually kill the cancer and treat it.

Katie - One way Frankie plans to control cancer cell’s behaviour is by the use of conductive nanoparticles. A kind of conductive pill will be taken by the patient, spreading gold nanoparticles throughout the body, and then the ones that reach the cancer cells would be activated by an electromagnetic field being induced in a particular area of the body…

Frankie - We functionalise and synthesise these gold nanoparticles - we’re terming them “nanobombs”. You put them inside the body; they’re taken up by a cancer cell; you apply an external field and that electric field switches on that gold nanoparticle to induce cell death.

Katie - Another proposal is to grow conductive wires within living tissue around cancer cells to enhance the effect of the electromagnetic field when it’s targeted at the cancerous area..

Frankie - We plan on wirelessly growing conductive wires around cells so when you apply your external field, you get an enhancement of that electrochemical effect.

Katie - So how do you ensure you’re hitting the right area of the body with your electromagnetic field, as electroconductivity is so wide ranging, getting this wrong could pose serious problems?

Frankie - The reason that they have to implant electrical devices, so do that invasive surgery, is because the need that electrical device to be close to that area of the tissue that they’re targeting. The idea that we propose, and we’ve already got some preliminary data for this, is to actually use additive manufacturing to build 3D electronics, which enable you to actually target the geometry of your electric field so you can target where that field is going into those tissues so it gives you a degree of selectivity in terms of targeting a specific area.

Katie - So besides cancer, could there be other applications for this wireless electrochemical technology?

Frankie - There certainly are; it’s extremely broad. Just to give you a flavour of where the state of the art is. Of course, we’ve already mentioned the cochlear implant and the potential bionic eye, so that’s controlling neurosignals. But there’s also the work by Professor Kevin Tracey over in the Feinstein Institute in the States, where he discovered there’s a reflex arc that modulates your immune system. So there’s a whole host of treatments now being currently developed for treating arthritis, gut inflammation using electronics. So there is certainly scope to treat a whole host of diseases.


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