Debrief: Scientifically, Kevin Tracey is all business

Nonprofit prophet: Feinstein Institute President (and bioelectronics pioneer) Kevin Tracey is less interested in bottom lines than top-grade science.

Fresh off keynoting an international symposium at the New York Academy of Sciences, bioelectronic medicine pioneer Kevin Tracey is (as usual) busily overseeing operations at the groundbreaking Feinstein Institute for Medical Research. That includes bioelectronics R&D, though Tracey is adamant that science – not sales – is Feinstein’s focus (example: he claims no involvement with a spinoff company based on his nerve-stimulating expertise). For the Feinstein president, collaboration and discovery set the tone, and the economics will take care of themselves. He says:  

RARE TREAT: This was only the second time that a (Royal Swedish Academy of Science) Key Symposium was held in the United States. They have a long and storied history, and until last year, over many decades, they’ve all been held in Sweden. It was a particular honor for us to host it.

HONORABLE GUESTS: I think we had the best program of speakers, of scientific and clinical leaders in the field of bioelectronic medicine, that I’ve ever seen. The sponsorship by the Journal of Internal Medicine and our ability to host it at the New York Academy of Sciences meant only the best people in the field were invited, and everyone who was invited came.

KEY NOTES: We had world-class scientists discussing the research happening today not as some imaginary future, but as a real future, based on what’s really happening. This was one of the best symposiums I’ve been to in a long time, and maybe ever.

RHEUMATOID HAS IT: I was a collaborator on a (rheumatoid arthritis) study led by Peter-Paul Tak, one of the world’s leading rheumatologists. The patients were all in Europe and there were two cohorts. One had failed standard medical therapies. The other had failed standard medical therapies and advanced biological therapies. These people were very sick and they were in a lot of pain. The clinical responses (to electronic nerve stimulation) were very significant. Many of the patients were put into clinical remission by implanting a device that stimulated the inflammatory reflex.

LESSON LEARNED: This was a first-in-class study of using a device to target the inflammatory reflex in patients, and these patients – who were suffering despite optimal medical therapy – got better. This opens the door to a new way of thinking about using electrons to replace drugs.

BIOELECTRONIC BP BENEFITS: This is a potentially paradigm-changing discovery. During the course of studying the inflammatory reflex, we discovered white blood cells that produce a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. This was really important, because for years it’s been known that acetylcholine can lower blood pressure, but nobody knew where the acetylcholine was coming from. It comes from lymphocytes, a subtype of white blood cells that can prevent hypertension – and neural signals that can be controlled by (bioelectronic) devices can control those lymphocytes.

SO, YOU’RE SAYING…: Theoretically, you could design a device that would measure blood pressure in a human, and if it rose above a certain level, the device would mobilize the release of these lymphocytes.

STAY CALM: These experiments are happening as we speak on animals in the lab. It is theoretical at this point, but it’s also potentially very, very real. When you understand how to control these lymphocytes, you know how to control blood pressure in patients. The question is, how many patients will this be effective for, and we won’t know that until we do clinical studies. I would imagine you’ll see some sort of clinical research inside of five years.

(NOT) TRACKING SANGUISTAT: I am not involved with the company. The Feinstein Institute licensed certain technologies to Sanguistat. I know the CEO and I met with him recently, but it’s his company. I will say that the Feinstein Institute is excited to see another discovery made here move into clinical trials, which is the company’s goal.

THE RESEARCH IS THE REWARD: The mission of the Feinstein Institute is to produce knowledge to cure disease. It’s a not-for-profit mission. That being said, in order to support our not-for-profit mission, it’s absolutely critical that we remain engaged in technology development. We have significant resources deployed to make sure our research and science have the best chance for clinical development, including technology-transfer resources.

PICKING THEIR SPOTS: Over the years, we have spun out faculty-initiated startup companies. We’ve engaged in very large and publicly announced research contracts with major companies, from Merck & Co. to General Electric, and with major pharmaceutical companies as well. What we bring to the table – and this has helped us significantly – is the ability to let the needs of the technology speak first. We don’t have a single boilerplate answer for developing technology, but we do work very hard to make sure the right technology is developed.

RESEARCH ROW: I think we’re living in a time of unprecedented collaboration. In the last few months alone, we have discussed very important and fruitful collaborations with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Of course, Feinstein is a close partner with Hofstra University around the Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine; we’ve been working closely with the Hofstra School of Engineering as well. And we recently joined the Stony Brook University technology-transfer initiative sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

COME TOGETHER: It takes a lot of different tools to develop the therapies of the future, and we embrace and encourage collaboration with any group, government agency or individual who can help us accomplish our mission.

AND SHARE ALIKE: Competition between institutions makes for good newspaper stories, but the average scientist doesn’t believe he or she is competing with anyone. We’re all just working on our inventions and discoveries, and the only competition is against time. I can’t remember a time when somebody wouldn’t share a reagent or data with me. Researchers are extraordinary like that.

Interview by Gregory Zeller  

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