Electrical implants could defeat all disease

Magic medicine: Electrical implants of the future could be as small as a grain of rice.

Would it be good to live in a world with no illness? A medical revolution is on the horizon. Groundbreaking technology could replace drugs and cure some of the world’s deadliest diseases.

The year is 2047. Your phone vibrates and a message flashes up. It says that you have early signs of lung cancer. You feel a slight buzz under your collarbone. A capsule inside you has begun treatment. No frightening doctors appointments. No surgery. No pills. You continue your day as if nothing ever happened.

This may seem like science fiction. But it could soon become reality thanks to groundbreaking technology known as “bioelectronics”.

Bioelectronics works by “hacking” the nervous system, and fighting illness with electrical signals. One day it could cure deadly diseases like diabetes and cancer, and everyday annoyances like the common cold.

In a recent breakthrough, scientists used bioelectronics to treat rheumatoid arthritis. They created an implant which prevented the body from producing hormones which cause arthritis. Treatment normally uses powerful drugs which can have lethal side-effects. Implants totally remove the need for these drugs.

They are also incredibly effective. Mirela Mustacevic, who took part in the study, could barely hold a pencil before her implant. Now she is going on 20-mile bike rides.

Dr Kevin Tracey, who led the experiment, believes that millions of people will be fitted with similar devices within his lifetime, and that bioelectronics could “replace the drug industry”.

And big companies are putting big money on this prediction. GlaxoSmithKline, a drugs company, plans to plough £540m into a new bioelectronics lab its has co-founded with Google.

Implants could even become sophisticated enough to conquer death. Researchers slowed the ageing process of mice by implanting stem cells into their brains. They plan to repeat the procedure on humans. And Professor Jim Vaupel, an expert in ageing at the Max Planck Institute, says that there may be no limit to human lifespan.

But how good would a world free from illness really be?

In sickness and in health

“Isn’t the answer obvious? A disease-free world would be paradise,” some say. Illness causes misery and pain to millions of people across the planet. Any technology that reduces this suffering can only be a good thing. If we spent less time in sickness, we could devote ourselves to all the things that make life happy and worth living.

“Not necessarily. Sickness is part of human nature,” argue others. Humans are not perfect. And sometimes we break down. However, the time that we devote to recovery makes us appreciate our health even more. Illness teaches us how fragile and precious life is — it makes us human. What is more, seven billion humans are already doing plenty of damage to the environment. Just imagine the chaos we would cause if we lived forever.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to live forever?
  2. Is disease a good thing?

Activities

  1. Name as many organs of the body as you can. What role does each organ play?
  2. Write down what you think are the five diseases which kill the most people in the world. Now research the world‘s deadliest diseases. How many did you get right? Are you surprised by any on the list?

Some People Say...

“Society would break down if humans never died.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis were eased for over two thirds of those who were treated with bioelectronic implants. We know that the lifespan of mice can be extended by 10-15% if the animals are injected with stem cells. It is also clear that the nervous system can communicate with the immune system through electrical impulse.
What do we not know?
We do not know what effect bioelectronics will have on other diseases, as other implants are yet to be tested. We do not know if stem cells implanted into human brains will extend human lifespan. It is also unclear if bioelectronic implants will have long term side-effects.

Word Watch

Electrical signals
The brain controls the nervous system by sending signals through the spinal chord. Until very recently most scientists thought that the immune system was completely separate from the nervous system. However, recent studies have proved that the two are linked.
Scientists
The study was led by Dr Kevin Tracey at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in New York.
Rheumatoid
There are two types of arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is caused when the body’s own immune system attacks joints. Osteoarthritis is caused by wear and tear on joints over time.
The body
The electrical impulses specifically stimulated the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain to the abdomen.
GlaxoSmithKline
The 7th biggest drug company in the world, with revenue of £27.9 billion in 2016.
Researchers
The study was led by Dr Dongsheng Cai of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

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