McKinsey outlines the multibillion-dollar potential of bioelectronics

28 October 2019 3 min. read

A recent McKinsey report outlines one of the latest frontiers in medical technology, and the breakthroughs and multibillion-dollar market which beckons.

Forget gene therapy says McKinsey & Company, bioelectronics and electroceuticals are the next big thing. Well, not exactly forget, but in a new medtech report the management consulting king has highlighted what it believes to be a multibillion-dollar market in waiting through the further development of bioelectronics – an emerging research field focussed on tapping into the body’s innate electrical systems to treat diseases and promote healthy functioning.

Put most simply, ‘bioelectronics’ concerns the implant of miniaturised devices to deliver electrical stimulation to the nerves, which, in controlling a wide range of bodily processes, offer a more direct route to address dysfunction. According to McKinsey, while themes such as the gut-brain axis, immuno-oncology, and various gene manipulation techniques currently dominate research headlines, the field of bioelectronics is being somewhat overlooked.

The potential of bioelectronics and electroceuticals

“The extent to which the electrical systems of the body contribute to healthy functioning and disease remains underappreciated, even within the medical field,” state the authors, despite pacemakers and electroshock therapy having been around for decades. According to the firm, the use of bioelectronics and electroceuticals (a form of bioelectronics aimed at replacing pharmaceutical therapy) have several advantages over existing therapeutic approaches.

Chief among them is the potential to treat conditions which current pharmaceuticals and procedures are either unable or can only partially address, severe spinal-cord injuries and blindness given as an example. In addition, tiny electronic implants designed to stimulate specific nervous functions offer the possibility for truly precise medicine, eliminating the side effects caused by drugs while aiding therapeutic adjustments and in some cases adherence.

The authors forward Parkisons’ disease as one application where electroceuticals with sophisticated algorithms may be particularly useful. “An electrical current can be increased or reduced far more easily than the concentration of a drug in the blood, and unlike surgical procedures, the effects of stimulation are reversible: the current can be switched off,” they note. “One can imagine a smartphone or tablet used by a physician (or patient) as a control interface.”

Patient journey with the aid of bioelectronics

But McKinsey concedes that significant advances will be needed before bioelectronics can deliver widespread clinical impact, and hurdles remain – not the least of which is our need to decode neural language in order to bypass the brain in the first place, a monumental challenge despite ongoing advances in computing processing power and neuroimaging technology. Then there’s the actual device engineering, along with regulatory and commercial barriers.

“Exciting times seem to be ahead for the new era of bioelectronics and electroceuticals,” concludes McKinsey. “Although considerable hurdles must be overcome, early successes have established the promising potential of cybermedicine. While today’s applications have likely only begun to scratch the surface of what is possible, bioelectronics has the potential to become a pillar of medical treatment and play a key role in the next horizon of medical technology innovation.”