How to speak cytokine: a bioelectronics breakthrough

Codebreaker: Feinstein Institute Assistant Professor Theodoros Zanos and his team are learning to decipher specific messages traveling along the nervous system.

You can bet they didn’t use secret decoder rings.

In a major feat of bioengineering and neurological science, a team of doctors at Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institute for Medical Research has intercepted and decoded specific signals the human nervous system uses to communicate immune and inflammation status to the brain – a potentially ginormous forward leap for bioelectronic medicine.

This latest bioelectronic breakthrough at what has become the international nerve center of nerve-stimulation science comes courtesy of Assistant Professor Theodoros Zanos, who worked with collaborators to identify different neural signals coursing through the nervous system and determine what each was saying about the body.

Thanks in large part to pioneering research performed by Feinstein Institute President and CEO Kevin Tracey, scientists already knew the vagus nerve, which runs through the neck, controls the release of cytokines – molecules that promote inflammation in many disease conditions.

Before now, it was unknown if each type of cytokine sends its own specific message to the brain. Zanos et al were able to isolate and successfully decode the specific neural signals of two cytokines – known as IL-18 and TNF – in the vagus nerve of laboratory mice and found that each triggered its own “specific response signal,” according to the Feinstein Institute.

The findings – published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the academy’s official scientific journal – provide considerable insight into potential diagnostic and therapeutic targets and will greatly benefit the development of new medical devices, the institute said in a statement.

Kevin Tracey: Now we can learn the lingo.

Specifically, the team’s work shows “it is possible to detect specific cytokine signaling from the body’s receptors to the brain through electrical signals in the vagus nerve,” noted Zanos, credited as the lead author of the PNAS paper.

“We will now use the neural decoding methods from this study to identify the neural signaling of a variety of medical conditions in future bioelectronic medicine studies,” Zanos added. “This is a key step to provide insights to engineer cutting-edge diagnostic and therapeutic devices.”

Bioelectronic medicine – an emerging field combining neuroscience, molecular biology and bioengineering – taps into the nervous system to treat disease and injury without the use of pharmaceuticals.

The nascent and promising field has found a home of sorts at the Feinstein Institute: In addition to Tracey, Northwell Health’s research mecca boasts leading bioelectronics scientist Chad Bouton, a former Battelle researcher now heading Feinstein’s Center for Bioelectronic Medicine.

Tracey – whose nerve-stimulation research is paving pathways toward new, non-pharmaceutical treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, lupus and a host of other diseases and conditions – called Zanos’ findings “a major discovery in the field of bioelectronic medicine.”

“We have long known that the nervous system communicates with the body,” Tracey said Monday. “We can now learn the language by which it communicates, which enables us to fine-tune how we help the body heal itself.”