Scientists at GE Global Research in Niskayuna gave an update at a Department of Defense symposium on Sept. 5 on their efforts to develop non-drug treatments for diabetes.
General Electric has a three-year Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency contract to do the work. DARPA this week is hosting D60, a symposium in Washington, D.C., that takes its name from the agency’s age this year.
Victoria Cotero, who is part of the bioelectronic medical research team at Global Research, said the goal is to stimulate the body’s central nervous system to the point that it will readjust the metabolism and reduce or eliminate the need for medication. Neuromodulation is a new field of research but scientists expect it to have numerous uses when fully developed, she said. “I think there’s a lot of belief that it’s still an open field.”
GE began working on the project in March and has not progressed beyond lab work at the cellular level so far. The goal ultimately would be clinical trial on human patients. Cotero said researchers in other settings have progressed to human testing. Results have been mixed, but side effects have mainly been annoying more than hazardous, she said.
Diabetes is the target of the GE project because it is believed to be a particularly ripe target for bioelectronics. Type 2 diabetes has been treated for what it is, too much glucose in the blood, Cotero said, rather than what is causing it. The operating theory is that the central nervous system is the root cause of insulin resistance, and can be prompted to change.
DARPA is interested in this because blood glucose levels are a direct indicator of trauma patients’ recovery, Cotero said — the higher a wounded soldier’s glucose, the worse his medical complications are likely to be, especially with an infection.
The GE contract is part of Electronic Prescriptions, or ElectRX, an ongoing DARPA program to reduce the time, logistical challenges and side effects of traditional medical treatments for a wide range of physical and mental conditions commonly faced by troops in combat. It seeks non-drug treatments for pain, inflammation, anxiety, trauma and post-traumatic stress, exploiting and expanding the key role the central nervous system already plays in maintaining physical and mental health.
The focus at this point is developing non-invasive treatment, external stimulation rather than surgical implants, Cotero said. Earlier research has shown better results with placement of electrodes closer to the problem area, rather than at the main trunk of nerves, the neck.
The 36-month DARPA project is worth up to $2.9 million to GE Global Research. The goal is to demonstrate a system that holds the promise of an effective non-invasive treatment with fewer side effects than drugs.
It also is an example of the “unleashing” that GE Global Research leader Vic Abate said would occur in the wake of the decision this spring to downsize and specialize General Electric around a few core companies. Global Research personnel would be free to pursue wider fields of study, he said, often in concert with outside partners.
The bioelectronic diabetes project, spokesman Todd Alhart said, will support the interests of GE Healthcare (which will be spun off from the conglomerate and become a subsidiary) and could create new business opportunities.
The same team of GE researchers recently worked on a project led by the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research to read and interpret nerve signals in the body.