Bioengineers receive MBIE funding to develop ‘electroceutical’ to treat heart disease

Researchers at the University of Auckland have been awarded over $1 million by MBIE’s Endeavour Fund to develop an implantable medical device that activates nerves to treat heart disease, potentially transforming cardiovascular therapies and the treatment of a range of conditions.

Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death in New Zealand and primary drug treatments have failed to improve statistics in the last ten years.

The MBIE-funded research is jointly led by Dr Daniel McCormick, a principle investigator with the Implantable Devices Group at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI), and Dr Jesse Ashton, Research Fellow with both the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences (FMHS) and the ABI.

Dr McCormick’s research focuses on creating new implantable devices to treat neurological conditions and heart disease. He has developed several new technologies to enable novel disease treatments including wireless power transfer, stimulation, and blood pressure sensing systems.

Dr Ashton’s research focuses on how the heart’s nervous system controls heart rhythm, with a particular interest in developing methods to modulate nervous system activity in order to treat cardiac arrhythmias in humans.

“After a chance meeting around the coffee machine, we realised we were working towards the same aim, and that we could develop a research project together,” says Dr McCormick.

Dr Jesse Ashton's research focuses on how the heart's nervous system controls heart rhythm.

The research is focused on the advancement of what are called ‘electroceuticals’, devices that stimulate or block neural activity and which offer an attractive alternative to drug-based therapies for heart disease – they can be more precisely controlled, and also have fewer side effects.

The key challenge facing the development of electroceuticals, they say, is finding a way to limit their effects to the fibres within a nerve that have therapeutic benefits on the target organ.

Their research is focused particularly on the vagus nerve, the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system, which runs all the way from the brainstem to the colon, and which carries neural traffic between the brain and the heart, lungs, the gastrointestinal tract, liver, and pancreas and back again. In other words, the vagus nerve is a neural information highway that informs the way many of our organs work.

“The science challenge is limiting stimulation to the subset of fibres within the vagus that have therapeutic benefits on the heart, the very specific fibre bundles which are relatively small and vary between individuals,” says Dr McCormick.

While implantable devices have been designed and used to stimulate nerve function in different organs and for different disorders, they typically involve complex surgery and carry associated risks of side effects.

“Our technology, on the other hand, can be implanted with relative ease in the neck and allows us to pinpoint stimulation to just the nerve fibres going to and from the heart, or another organ of our choice”, says Dr Ashton. “It’s like always hitting the bullseye on a dart board because we can move the bullseye.”

The vagus nerve has a protective and functional role in multiple organs and they expect this research could be harnessed to use neuromodulation to treat a broad array of conditions, including obesity/diabetes, gastrointestinal diseases, and inflammatory disorders.

This project advances research developed with the help of the Hugo Charitable Trust and manufacturing capabilities created in the MBIE Smart Pressure Sensor Programme, and will draw on decades of research done across the ABI and the Medtech CoRE and with national and international collaborators into implantable devices, computer modelling, heart and nerve physiology. This research will also contribute to work within the new Healthy Hearts for Aotearoa New Zealand CoRE addressing inequities in heart health for Māori and Pacific people.

Dr Daniel McCormick explains his research into neurological disorders, and the role of the brain on the heart, at a recent ABI research showcase.

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