There’s significant medical news to report, and I’m not just talking about whether you should still floss now that it’s been revealed that the practice actually does nothing to prevent gum disease.
(What did we expect? It is, after all, waxed string.)
No, I’m talking about incredible research – much of it being performed right here on Long Island – that will help doctors of the near future hack the body’s nervous system and correct a host of diseases and conditions using a regimen of low-dose electrical pulses.
The idea was pioneered by Kevin Tracey, president of the Feinstein Center, the medical research arm of Northwell Health. A neurosurgeon by training, Tracey has been poking around the body’s vagus nerve bundles since the late 1990s, trying to understand the connection between the brain and the immune system.
(This was pretty cheeky at the time, given that the medical world had already decided there was no connection.)
Vagus is Latin for “wandering,” and the nerve certainly lives up to its name. Originating in the brainstem, just behind the ears, the vagus travels down each side of the neck and then splays out across the body, networking the heart, lungs, spleen, stomach, intestinal tract, liver and kidneys. Eighty percent of its tens of thousands of nerve fibers are sensory, meaning they also report back to the brain on what’s going on below.
Tracey’s primary interest has been in controlling autoimmune disorders, those conditions in which the body attacks itself: rheumatoid arthritis, for example, or lupus or inflammatory bowel disease. Multiple sclerosis is another autoimmune scourge.
There is no known cure for these conditions and treatment has been limited to drugs that suppress the entire immune system, exposing patients to other medical risks.
Tracey’s big idea was to deliver tiny electric pulses to the vagus, improving transmission of the brain waves that tell the body how to behave. In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, the treatment is designed to boost signals to the spleen telling it to shut down production of an inflammatory protein known as TNF.
That research culminated in a triumphant human trial in Europe this spring, in which severely arthritic test subjects were able to trade their wheelchairs for bicycles in a matter of weeks. A third of the participants are in total remission, essentially cured of the disease. At least one has taken up volleyball.
Tracey and his colleagues at Feinstein are exploring additional treatments, including electrical stimulation that coaxes the spleen into reducing the body’s blood flow by half. That’s sure to become normal procedure before major surgery and it’s a potential life-saving technique for the EMTs and battlefield medics of tomorrow.
Other researchers are studying the return paths of the vagus, hoping to perfect treatments for epilepsy and other neurological disorders.
If all goes according to plan, Long Island will become home to the world’s first research facility for vagus-focused research and treatment, collectively called bioelectronic medicine. The $350 million project, being funded with public and private money, will be a significant boost to the region’s goal of building a biotech and medical cluster, and with it, Long Island’s much-awaited post-Grumman future.
I’ll floss to that.