Wireless pain management could be alternative to opioids

Rice neuroengineers developing implantable nerve stimulators for NIH-funded project

By Graciela Gutierrez
Special to the Rice News

Neuroengineers at Rice University and the Texas Medical Center are teaming up to create implantable, wirelessly powered nerve stimulators that can be used in place of opioids for pain management.

Jacob Robinson

Jacob Robinson

Neuropathic pain can be a disabling disorder that accounts for nearly 40% of chronic pain sufferers, often leading to anxiety, depression and opioid addiction. As an alternative to opioids, the implantable nerve stimulators will be small enough to be placed on stents and delivered within blood vessels adjacent to specific areas of the central and peripheral nervous system.

Researchers at Rice’s Brown School of Engineering, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) have been awarded a National Institutes of Health grant to develop the new endovascular nerve stimulation technology. The project’s principle investigator is Baylor neurosurgeon Peter Tze Man Kan. Co-principle investigators are UTHealth neurologist Sunil Sheth and Rice neuroengineer Jacob Robinson.

Kan said research has shown that electrical stimulation is an effective treatment for reducing pain when doctors target the spinal cord and the dorsal root ganglia, or DRG, a bundle of nerves that carry sensory information to the spinal cord.

“There are currently available DRG stimulators,” Kan said. “However, they require surgery to implant a battery pack and pulse generator. Our goal is to develop a minimally invasive technology.”

This technology will help reduce the risks associated with nerve stimulation therapies, such as invasive surgeries and the potential for infection. The smaller device will also allow for more precise placement and more predictable outcomes.

Robinson is leading an engineering team that includes Rice assistant professor Kaiyuan Yang.

Kaiyuan Yang

Kaiyuan Yang

“The ability to manufacture extremely small bioelectronic devices creates tremendous opportunities for new bioelectronic medicines like nonaddictive pain relief,” Robinson said.

When devices are small enough to be delivered through blood vessels, powering them with electromagnetic waves or magnetic induction is inefficient, the researchers said. For that reason,  electronic stimulation therapies now rely on wired devices.

To create a new wireless endovascular nerve stimulation technology, the researchers will use their own recent innovation in wireless power delivery for millimeter-sized bioelectronics. Patients will wear a magnetic field generator that will deliver power and data.

Research and development are just beginning, and Kan said preclinical and clinical trials will be needed to test the devices for safety and efficacy.

“The ultimate goal of our work is to have a non-opioid alternative for patients with neuropathic pain that is resistant to medical therapy,” Kan said.

The NIH awarded the grant as part of the Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative, which was launched in April 2018 to improve prevention and treatment strategies for opioid misuse and addiction. The initiative aims to improve treatments for chronic pain, curb the rates of opioid use disorder and overdose and achieve long-term recovery from opioid addiction.

Kan is an associate professor of neurosurgery and director of cerebrovascular surgery at Baylor College of Medicine. Sheth is an assistant professor of endovascular neurology at UTHealth’s McGovern Medical School. Robinson is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and of bioengineering at Rice. Yang is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice.

–Graciela Gutierrez is assistant director of media relations and communications at Baylor College of Medicine.

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.