17. Dec. 2021
A research group led by Eric Glowacki at CEITEC BUT is dedicated to neurostimulation. Thanks to the ERC grant, researchers in Brno are dealing with wireless stimulation of peripheral nerves. An article in the prestigious journal Nature Biomedical Engineering provides information about the results of their work. It presents to scientists from all over the world a unique implant that supplies the necessary energy to the body through the skin.
The principle of neurostimulation methods in general is electrical and magnetic stimulation, which targets either the peripheral area or the central nervous system. One of the most common targets of electrical neurostimulation is the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain through the neck to the abdominal cavity. Its stimulation can help people after an injury or those who suffer from epilepsy, but various inflammatory autoimmune diseases are no exception. Therapeutic effects have thus been demonstrated, for example, in patients suffering from Crohn's disease.
So far, only implants in the form of a pacemaker have helped those sufferers, but it is necessary to recharge these implants at regular intervals, which unfortunately means the need for further invasive surgery. Eric Glowacki's team brings a new, non-invasive, and most importantly minimalist solution: “Our goal was to come up with a very small stimulator that would be more comfortable for patients to implement. It should be placed on the neck, with the device being recharged by light. It has never occurred to anyone that it is possible to shine through the skin, because the tissue is transparent, so high energy densities can safely reach the skin to a reasonable depth," explains Glowacki. In practice, the patient could thus "dose" the required amount of energy using a laser pointer. In Crohn's disease or some forms of epilepsy, he said, just a few minutes a day would be enough.
Glowacki's international team has already conducted a test operation in the United States, at Columbia University in New York. It took less than ten minutes for the researchers to wrap the ultra-thin plastic ribbon around the sciatic nerve of the rat. This is a very well-known model of animal experimentation, because the sciatic nerve is responsible for the movement of the foot. This makes it easy to see if neurostimulation is successful. Unfortunately, the observation lasted only a hundred days, and the scientists were forced to stop the experiment due to complications associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The results were still impressive. "After removing the implanted ribbon, the nerve was absolutely fine, the rat's body did not perceive it as something undesirable, in general, what is small is better tolerated by the body," said the team leader. He also specified that the material used is biocompatible, it is an inert plastic for implants. The light-absorbing elements are then commercial pigments that are used in the cosmetic industry.
Glowacki's team began researching this material during their time in Sweden. However, due to the need for better equipment and new possibilities, they decided at the end of last year to go to CEITEC BUT in Brno where Glowacki would like to introduce similar animal experiments in natural conditions in the future.
The members of the research team are convinced that within a few years they will be able to supply equipment suitable for people. The results published in Nature Biomedical Engineering clearly prove that it is safe and functional. It is the effectiveness and safety of this implantable stimulator that is the alpha and omega of all efforts for Brno scientists. Therefore, a number of other animal experiments await them before they are ready to adapt them to therapeutic applications for human patients.
Eric Glowacki himself believes that the results of their work can inspire other scientists, especially those involved in the production of externally powered sensing and stimulation technologies, such as micropumps. LED lighting is extremely cheap, it is a commercial light source available anywhere. According to Glowacki, light is the ideal solution.
This holder of a prestigious ERC grant has a clear goal for the future. "I would like to achieve the possibility of clinical application of our discovery, helping people is the biggest motivation for me and my team. We are really close. I feel it. We have a completely clear vision of how to proceed and, at CEITEC BUT, also ideal conditions."
A 35-year-old scientist of Polish nationality, he has lived in Austria, Sweden and the USA. He currently lives and works in Brno. He runs, skis, loves history, enjoys traveling and sightseeing. He appreciates Czech beer and "Czech pub culture". He graduated from high school focusing on emergency rescue, then worked for the rescue service for four years. That changed his life. He enjoyed chemistry, materials, and electrical engineering, but he didn't want to be a doctor. As a scientist, he combined the two.