Wireless pain management studied as possible alternative to opioids

Photo of Sunil A. Sheth, MD
Sunil A. Sheth, MD

A grant to develop new endovascular nerve stimulation technology for neuropathic pain has been awarded by the National Institutes of Health to a team of multi-institutional researchers including Sunil A. Sheth, MD, of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

Sheth is co-principal investigator with Baylor College of Medicine neurosurgeon Peter Tze Man Kan, MD, MPH; and Rice University neuroengineer Jacob Robinson, PhD.

The trio teamed up to create implantable, wirelessly powered nerve stimulators that can be used in place of opioids for pain management.

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.

“We have made tremendous advances recently in our ability to perform minimally invasive treatments for a number of neurological disorders,” said Sheth, assistant professor of neurology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “By navigating these devices through blood vessels, we can dramatically reduce the procedural risk, and in doing so, make these types of treatments much more accessible to the many people who suffer from unrelenting pain.”

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,” said Kan, who is the study’s contact co-principal investigator. “However, they require surgery to implant a battery pack and pulse generator. Our goal is to develop a minimally invasive technology.”

Creating the new type of technology could help to reduce potential risks associated with nerve stimulation therapies such as invasive surgeries and risk of infection. The smaller device also will help with more precise placement and more predictable outcomes.

“The ability to manufacture extremely small bioelectronic devices creates tremendous opportunities for new bioelectronic medicines like nonaddictive pain relief,” Robinson said. He is leading an engineering team that includes Rice assistant professor Kaiyuan Yang, PhD.

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.

“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.

- This story was adapted from a Baylor College of Medicine news release

Deborah Mann Lake

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