The Field of Bioelectronic Medicine is Growing Fast. Who’s Backing the Movement?

In 1982, Leonard and Susan Feinstein’s son was in a car accident that resulted in a severe brain injury. At the time, the Feinsteins found that there were few options available for his long-term care. This led them to establish the Long Island Head Injury Association. “Life-saving techniques to keep you alive got so much better,” Leonard Feinstein said, “but the deficits you were left with posed a significant challenge to those responsible for caring for you.”

The lack of care options also served as a catalyst to the Feinsteins' personal philanthropy, directed at improving health care delivery systems with a specific focus on neurosciences and bioelectronic medicine.

(Leonard Feinstein made his fortune from Bed, Bath and Beyond. We've written about the Feinsteins' giving before, focusing on their support of Jewish causes.)

In 2000, the Feinsteins funded the Susan and Leonard Feinstein Center for Neurosciences at the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, now Northwell Health. The center, which is dedicated to the study of neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric illnesses, was the first of its kind at Northwell.

Then, in 2005, the Feinsteins donated $25 million to the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, formerly known as the Northwell Research Institute. Now, the couple has made another $25 million donation to the institute, funding the institute’s expansion in the fields of research, clinical trials, neuroscience, autoimmunity, and bioelectronic medicine.

The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research is considered a global leader in the field of bioelectric medicine, a fairly new discipline that merges neuroscience, molecular biology, cell biology and bioengineering. The Feinstein Institute describes its work in bioelectric medicine this way: 

The nervous system uses electrical signals to communicate information throughout the body. Virtually every cell and organ of the body is directly or indirectly controlled by these neural signals. Our researchers are learning the language of these neural signals so that we can listen for signals of disease or injury. We are also using bioelectronic medicine technologies to record, stimulate, and block neural signals, which is essentially teaching the body how to heal itself... Bioelectronic medicine will change the way we treat diseases, injuries and conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, paralysis, bleeding, and even cancer.

That sounds pretty cool, and it explains why the Feinsteins aren’t the only ones getting behind the fast-growing field of bioelectric medicine.

In February 2017, GE Ventures along with several other partners, announced that it would be entering into a strategic partnership with the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research to provide joint funding over seven years. The funds back the opening of the new Center for Bioelectronic Medicine at the institute. The center is focusing on advancing diagnostics and therapeutics for a wide range of diseases and conditions. 

The investments by GE Ventures builds on the research of GE scientists specializing in bioelectronics at GE's Global Research Center located in Niskayuna, New York. While the new venture is headquartered at the Feinstein Institute, researchers and scientists at the institute will continue to collaborate with their colleagues at GE's Global Research Center.

According to Heather Ball of the Feinstein Institute, “To date, $275 million has been committed to the center, derived from industry, philanthropy, individuals, and from the Northwell Health. We expect the number of partners and committed funds to grow significantly as we move forward.”

Of the joint venture, Chad Bouton, director at the Center for Bioelectric Medicine, said, “In just a few years, we will look back on this agreement as the moment when bioelectric medicine took off.” And the field is definitely taking off.

In 2013, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced that it would begin pursuing bioelectronics research and development. Later that year, GSK announced that it was launching its Bioelectronics Innovation Challenge, which offers a $1 million prize for novel innovations in bioelectronics research. The contest challenges scientists to create a wireless implantable device able to “record, stimulate, and block neural signals to a single organ.” In 2014, GSK announced the creation of a $5 million Innovation Challenge Fund to underwrite the teams participating in the challenge.

GSK rocketed its support of bioelectronics in 2016 when it joined forces with Alphabet’s Verily Life Sciences unit, creating a new company focused on “fighting diseases by targeting electrical signals in the body.” Verily Life Sciences and GSK pledged to jointly contribute $715 million over seven years to Galvani Bioelectronics.

While bioelectric medicine has been around since 1998, when neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey began his pioneering work, growth in the field hasn’t been particularly speedy. That is, it seems, until now. This is yet another example of how game-changing amounts of new money keep arriving in unexpected niches of medical research.