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Neural stimulator being developed to treat autoimmune disease

Technology Review recently reported on a nerve stimulator designed to rein in "the out-of-control immune system that triggers autoimmune diseases" like multiple sclerosis and lupus. Writer Emily Singer explains:

Numerous animal studies have shown that stimulating the vagus nerve can put a brake on the immune system, stopping the rapid recruitment of immune cells to the site of injury or infection. "Think of it as a thermostat for the immune system," says James Broderick, interim president of the company [that is developing the stimulator] and a partner at Morgenthaler Ventures, Setpoint's key investor. "This reflex puts a damper on the immune system."

The effect is similar to that of a popular class of drugs, called TNF alpha blockers, used to treat arthritis and other autoimmune diseases. These drugs block the release of an immune signaling molecule that is central to inducing inflammation. While they work effectively in 50 to 70 percent of patients, the drugs can lose their effectiveness over time and have been linked to some serious side effects, such as infection and cancer. Vagus nerve stimulation blocks both the signal molecule and other cytokines involved in inflammation.

Stanford neurologist Lawrence Steinman, MD, an MS expert, provides comment in the piece on the device's potential. The bottom line: it sounds promising, but clinical data is needed. Singer notes that the company hopes to begin human trials next year.

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