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A “Living Pharmacy” That Can Shift the Body’s Circadian Clock

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Many of us are familiar with the undesirable physical and mental effects of a disrupted sleep/wake cycle caused by traveling across multiple time zones or working irregular hours. A collaborative project designed to address these issues is working to develop a “living pharmacy” – a personalized, wireless and fully implantable device that can control the body’s circadian clock.

The project, NTRAIN (Normalizing Timing of Rhythms Across Internal Networks of Circadian Clocks), is part of the ADAPTER (Advanced Acclimation and Protection Tool for Environmental Readiness) program initiated by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and includes partners from Northwestern University and Blackrock Neurotech.

Technology Networks
spoke to Florian Solzbacher, co-founder and chairman of Blackrock Neurotech, formerly named Blackrock Microsystems, to learn more about the project and the challenges of developing implantable devices.  

Anna MacDonald (AM): What are the biological causes of the physical and mental health effects of disrupted sleep/wake cycles?

Florian Solzbacher (FS):
The circadian rhythm plays a role in virtually all systems in the body, ranging from metabolism to mental health. When the circadian rhythm is off and the “internal clock in the brain” which is e.g. impacted by day/night light cycles, does not send the relevant signals throughout the body, reliably, this leads to disrupted, shallower and lower quality sleep, which in turn can have effects on mental health, digestion and bowel movement, immune system function and many more, including more permanent sleep phase disorders.

AM: Can you tell us more about the new device and how it will help to overcome these effects?

The new device generates the same peptides that regulate our circadian rhythm and releases them on demand into the bloodstream thus sending clear “clock signals” throughout the body.

AM: What led to the partnership with Northwestern University and DARPA? What role is Blackrock Neurotech playing in the project?

Blackrock Neurotech has over the past decade gained a reputation for successfully developing chronically implantable devices and systems, in particular for the study, monitoring and treatment of neurological disorders and it has become a trusted partner for many leading research labs in ensuring successful completion of first in human demonstrations and in translating ideas and technologies from academic environments into clinical studies and products. This includes carrying out system engineering tasks for complex implantable systems, managing the relevant regulatory design control processes, developing and carrying out test protocols, and supporting process development for manufacturability. In addition: several of the researchers of the team led by Northwestern University have worked with Blackrock and our products or collaborated in projects successfully in the past, which is why Blackrock was brought on board to help ensure successful translation into human subjects.

AM: Can you tell us about any challenges associated with developing implantable devices?

Developing implantable devices can be as complex as missions to fly to Mars: it requires a very diverse set of expertise and capabilities, driven by patient and clinical needs and workflows, a keen understanding of the physiological requirements, technical expertise in materials, biomedical engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, pharmaceutics, etc. – it is a complex value chain and system not just a simple device.

In order for such projects to work, you need a culture and a team that truly believes in collaboration to the extent that it does not matter “who invented it”, but everybody does what they can to ensure that the project overall is a success. This has been an operating mode for Blackrock and all our academic and clinical partners ever since we started and it is a key recipe for success. Hannibal did not cross the Alps alone and the pharaoh did not build the pyramids…it took vast numbers of people and skills to do so. All the major quantum leaps in technology come from collaborative work which showcases what mankind is capable to do if only they put their minds behind a cause.

AM: Could the platform and “living pharmacy” technology be applied to treat other conditions?

Absolutely: the concept is truly a platform and could be used to monitor other conditions and release other biomolecules and/or drugs in a controlled fashion – pain management could be one such area of many.

Florian Solzbacher was speaking to Anna MacDonald, Science Writer for Technology Networks.