Science fiction or real life? Bioelectronics could heal bones, cure diseases, SXSW panel says

Panelists on bioelectronics say emerging field has potential to revolutionize health care

The human body is not that different from a computer.

Coursing through our bodies are electrical impulses, which is essentially how our central nervous system controls functioning of our organs, which tend to be responsible for many chronic disease.

There's a way to harness this electrical system through tiny devices, as small as a grain of rice, implanted inside the human body.  This means serious diseases, like diabetes, can be treated without pills, chemicals or injections.

"Think of the body as a computer," said Kate Rosenbluth, the CEO of bioelectronics startup Cala Health, who spoke at the "Inner Space: Bioelectronics and Medicine's Future" panel at SXSW Interactive. "All that information is fundamentally coded in a series of zeros and ones. The circuit of the body is basically a circuit of cells called neurons."

She compared it to the way a Nest thermostat can control the temperature of a room. "Why can't we have a device that adaptively controls your blood pressure? It's possible with existing technologies."

"What we're really doing is teaching the body how to heal itself," Rosenbluth said.

Wait, what? Did I just stumble into the Matrix?

Admittedly, some of this is just theoretical. But Moncef Slaoui the chairman of vaccines for GSK, a pharmaceutical company , said his pharmaceutical company is already testing these concepts.

Slaoui said GSK has invested in this area, trying to entice scientists and engineers to work with them on proving "the concept that this idea of controlling our organs through electrical signals."

After two-and-a-half years, Slaoui said, they have data that "we can correct infertility in females" and also treat diabetes, asthma, low blood pressure and "accelerate healing of bone fractures."

Some panel members said technological advances tend to be focused on consumer items like better smartphones or smart thermostats, and that we have neglected how the "Internet of Things" could be used inside the human body.

"When it comes to the body, as a society we're doing a pretty bad job," said Walter Voit, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. But we're using very old tools to treat our bodies, he said.

"We're playing Pong when we could at least be playing World of Warcraft." (If you have no idea what this means, just know that it's a video game metaphor.)

One of the biggest challenges in bioelectronics, Slaoui said, is finding the right materials. "We have to find materials our bodies can live with," he said. "our bodies are designed to reject material that foreign." Biology is "smooth," he said, whereas some of these tiny devices being developed have harder edges.

So how far away are we from getting an implant prescribed at the doctor's office? Slaoui said maybe in 10 years.