In my role as Head of Open programmes at Innovate UK, I see proposals for R&D projects across a wide range of sectors, technical topics and company sizes. One area that has recently caught my attention is the UK strength in implants.
Implants to restore hearing
For example, the UK was a world leader in developing cochlear implants for restoring hearing which are now widely used. Across the UK Research Councils we have funded £33m in cochlear implant research. They work because the plasticity of the brain means that we can learn new things at any age. The electrical impulses coming from a newly implanted cochlear implant in the skull get picked up by the brain and over time get interpreted as relating to sounds.
Excitingly, there has been another £80m of Research Council and Innovate UK funding on other implant technologies in the last 5 years, so there is an opportunity for UK based companies to make the most of research outputs.
Bioelectronics could become more effective than medicines
What this research could turn into is what has caught my imagination. In particular, bioelectronics as an emerging technology, in which GSK have recently set up a major £540m new programme with Verily (previously Google Life Sciences).
Bioelectronics is a very exciting and ground-breaking emerging technology which could potentially treat many diseases by electrical stimulation of nerves rather than using pharmaceutical drugs.
Early uses of bioelectronics are currently effective but lack precision
An early example of bioelectronics using electrical stimulation of nerves is through deep brain stimulation to alleviate symptoms from neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.
This is done by inserting electrodes deep into the brain. It works brilliantly, but lacks precision and therefore patients suffer major side effects because the electrodes stimulate larger areas of the brain than necessary. When activated they may feel similar to having a stroke.
Other downsides are:
- the operation to insert the implant deep in the brain is also highly risky
- it is so specialised, there are only a few companies e.g. Medtronic, who are producing the electrodes
Wouldn’t it be amazing if a tiny implant could join the gap for a severed nerve and return the ability to move for a paraplegic?
Greater precision and fewer side effects
However, with more research and development, bioelectronics promise to offer greater precision.
Battery-powered devices, smaller than a grain of sand, are in development that will aim to affect the electrical signals that travel along nerves. Stimulating nerves in the peripheral nervous system, bioelectronics devices could control biological processes with potentially greater precision and fewer side effects than with conventional medicines.
This reduction in side effects can open up a market demand for bioelectronics for treating many chronic debilitating diseases in other organs of the body, not just the brain, and could also be used in treating some mental health problems through raising mood.
One key hope for bioelectronics, because of the small size of the implants, is to make the operation to implant the devices safer and easier.
Market estimated to grow to $25-$51 billion by 2023
Current bioelectronics research outputs are beginning to enable a disruptive technology and a growth opportunity for whoever can lead. The global bio-electronics and biosensors market is already large and was valued at $11.4 billion in 2013 and estimated to grow to $25-$51 billion by 2023.
This growth is fueled by rising demand for monitoring devices such as:
- blood glucose level
- cardiac pacemakers
- gastric and ear implants
- other implantable medical devices
- medical imaging devices
New advances in bioelectronics could cause significantly higher growth in this market by enabling new, more effective treatment of diseases.
UK also strong at bioelectronics value chain
Bioelectronics is a highly multidisciplinary area. Fortunately for the UK, in addition to good health and therapeutic capability, the UK is also strong in aspects of the value chain in this sector, including:
- low power electronics
- organic electronics
- energy harvesting
In addition, the UK defence and aerospace industries have key enabling capability for translation to healthcare applications.
Academic excellence in implants is centered in major centres and projects in the universities of:
- Leeds for medical devices
- Imperial on neural systems
- and Cambridge among several others
As for the international context, the U.S., European Union (E.U.), Japan and Canada are extremely large and lucrative medical device markets; however, they are mature markets with stable but relatively low (3 – 5 percent) annual growth rates.
Asia Pacific is expected to be the fastest growing region. For example, demand for medical devices in China and India is growing at double digit growth rates compared to developed countries, albeit from a low base.
Who is selling into these markets?
North America leads the world in the production of medical devices with 46% of the global market. China has emerged as a significant exporter of price sensitive, lower tech equipment.
Consumption of bioelectronics is likely to start with the richer nations who can afford implant costs, which will allow growth in the mature Europe, North America and Japanese markets.
Possible public resistance
Clearly, there may be public resistance to moving from pharmaceutical treatments to bioelectronics treatments. An easy early target may be the millennial generation who appear to have less psychological resistance to implants than the baby boomer generation. There is already extensive medical and therapeutic funding pouring into these areas.
SMEs are needed to overcome consumer resistance
What is missing is the involvement of SMEs who can identify the early applications and business models that could help to overcome consumer resistance to these technologies.
Can we afford not to get involved?
Follow me on Twitter: @FionnualaCostel
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