Move Over, Wolverine: DARPA’s Self-healing Implants

Wolverine is arguably one of the fan favorites in the Marvel universe.  In addition to him being one of those “I do what I want” mutants, he also has awesome attributes.  He was born with the ability to rapidly recover from any ailment.  Wouldn’t it be cool to have a capability like that? Or have any superhero power, for that matter.

Slashy slashy.

Slashy slashy.

Thanks to a new program from DARPA, Wolverine’s fantastic healing abilities might not be as fictional as you think.  The program is aptly called ElectRx – or Electrical Prescriptions – and it’s designed to help humans heal like never before.

Claws, here we come.

The ElectRx (pronounced “electrics”) program is designed to develop technologies to restore and maintain healthy physiological status through monitoring and targeted regulation of signaling in peripheral nerves that control organ functions.  Realistically speaking, you’re not going to recover quite like Wolverine, but things that would take your body a LOT longer (if ever) to recover from could be much easier to fix.

According to DARPA, these novel therapies are based on” targeted stimulation of the peripheral nervous system could promote self-healing, reduce dependence on traditional drugs and provide new treatment options for illnesses.”

Here’s how it works:

The body’s peripheral nervous system constantly monitors the status of internal organs and helps regulate biological responses to infection, injury or other imbalances. When this regulatory process goes awry due to injury or illness, peripheral nerve signals can actually exacerbate a condition, causing pain, inflammation or immune dysfunction.

That reality raises the tantalizing prospect that a number of difficult-to-treat conditions might be managed more effectively by precise modulation of the peripheral nervous system than by conventional medical devices or medications.

DARPA’s ElectRx program was among the initiatives the White House highlighted as President Obama addressed the need for new and more effective strategies for improving the health of service members, veterans and others.

Novel therapies based on targeted stimulation of the peripheral nervous system could promote self-healing, reduce dependence on traditional drugs and provide new treatment options for illnesses. (Graphic illustration provided by DARPA/Released)

Novel therapies based on targeted stimulation of the peripheral nervous system could promote self-healing, reduce dependence on traditional drugs and provide new treatment options for illnesses. (Graphic illustration provided by DARPA/Released)

“The technology DARPA plans to develop through the ElectRx program could fundamentally change the manner in which doctors diagnose, monitor and treat injury and illness,” said Doug Weber, DARPA program manager.

“Instead of relying only on medication—we envision a closed-loop system that would work in concept like a tiny, intelligent pacemaker. It would continually assess conditions and provide stimulus patterns tailored to help maintain healthy organ function, helping patients get healthy and stay healthy using their body’s own systems.”

Interestingly, concepts like this are nothing new.  Simple implantable devices for management of chronic inflammatory diseases (and other disorders) are already in clinical use, and the market for neuromodulation devices is growing rapidly. Current devices, however, are relatively large (about the size of a deck of cards), and require invasive surgical implantation.  As a result, they often produce side effects due to their lack of precision.

ElectRx seeks to create ultraminiaturized devices, approximately the same size as individual nerve fibers, which would require only minimally invasive insertion procedures such as injectable delivery through a needle.

The concept of using ultraminiaturized bio-tech devices to cure all number of ailments is prevalent in many science fiction stories as well.  Doctor Crusher used to keep nanobots in sick bay for occasions such as this (which allowed Wesley to take some out and modify them for a school project, inadvertently creating a new life form, but I digress).

I love when science fiction becomes science reality.

According to DARPA, ElectRx aims to develop new, high-precision, minimally invasive technologies for modulating nerve circuits to restore and maintain human health. These technologies are also expected to help accelerate scientific research aimed at achieving a more complete understanding of the structure and function of specific neural circuits and their role in health and disease.

“Potential targets include recently identified circuits involved in regulating immune system function, providing new hope for treating a range of inflammatory diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, systemic inflammatory response syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.”

ElectRx is also expected to improve peripheral nerve stimulation treatments for brain and mental health disorders, such as epilepsy, traumatic brain injury (TBI), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression.

Who wants some mutant juice?!  (U.S. Defense Department graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

Who wants some mutant juice?! (U.S. Defense Department graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

Achieving DARPA’s goals for the program would require new technologies for in vivosensing and neural stimulation.  This includes advanced biosensors and novel optical, acoustic and electromagnetic devices to achieve precise targeting of individual or small bundles of nerve fibers that control relevant organ functions.

ElectRx is part of a broader portfolio of programs within DARPA that support President Obama’s brain initiative. These programs include ongoing efforts designed to advance fundamental understanding of the brain’s dynamics to drive applications (Revolutionizing Prosthetics, Restorative Encoding Memory Integration Neural Device, Reorganization and Plasticity to Accelerate Injury Recovery, Enabling Stress Resistance), manufacture robust sensing systems for neurotechnology applications (Reliable Neutral Interface Technology) and analyze large data sets (Detection and Computational Analysis of Psychological Signals).

DARPA expects to release a Broad Agency Announcement with full technical details on ElectRx in the coming months on the Federal Business Opportunities website (www.fbo.gov). Eventual performers would be required to obtain regulatory guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration throughout all phases of the planned five-year program, culminating in approval of an FDA Investigational Device Exemption to enable pilot studies of ElectRx devices in humans. For more information, please email DARPA-SN-14-45@darpa.mil.

I have a herniated disc in my back that I would like to volunteer as tribute.  Seriously though, the chance – even the hope – that things like chronic pain and illness could become a thing of the past is what makes this program something worth believing in.

And then we’re gonna develop that impenetrable metal, right, DARPA?  I mean, adamantium isn’t going to invent itself…

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Jessica L. Tozer
 is the editor and blogger for Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

Follow Armed with Science on Facebook and Twitter!

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2 Responses to Move Over, Wolverine: DARPA’s Self-healing Implants

  1. Les says:

    hey there,just luv it all…I have a friend in great physical pain – how do we get involved with this ??
    cheers,
    Les.

  2. George Constanti says:

    How will the DARPA technology impact the current research and development of non-invasive devices that exploit neuroplasticity in the treatment of, e.g.: Alzheimer’s and Parkinsonism