Merck KGaA taps Spanish graphene startup for ultrafine, smart neuromodulation therapies

Graphene
By targeting the vagus nerve linking the brain with the heart, lungs and gut, Merck KGaA and Inbrain hope to treat various chronic inflammatory, metabolic and endocrine conditions. (Getty Images)

Merck KGaA has tapped a Spanish startup to help it build a new approach to bioelectronic therapies. The aim is to use graphene to target multiple chronic diseases through selective nerve stimulation.

Barcelona-based Inbrain Neuroelectronics has been developing a system that employs incredibly fine electrodes, constructed out of sheets of carbon molecules only one atom thick. This could allow an implant to deliver minimally invasive electrical stimulation at super-high levels of resolution and energy efficiency, according to the company. 

Working with its subsidiary, Innervia Bioelectronics, the German Merck aims to produce new therapies based around the vagus nerves, which help link the brain with the heart, lungs and digestive tract.

“Today’s agreement with Innervia Bioelectronics gives our company access to a unique technology that increases energy efficiency in neurostimulators and could therefore become a true enabler for digital personalized treatment of patients suffering from severe and chronic diseases such as inflammatory disorders,” Merck’s chief science and technology officer, Laura Matz, said in a statement. Initial projects will also focus on metabolic and endocrine conditions.

RELATED: Researchers develop fast COVID-19 test using atom-thick sheets of graphene

In a collaboration spanning the next few years, Merck will provide its bioelectronics research facilities, while Innervia will supply technical expertise around its graphene-body interfaces and signal processing, with the goal of producing an artificial intelligence-guided system. 

“Bioelectronic devices have the capability to directly communicate with the nervous system. Recording nerve signals and combining them with other accessible physiological datasets will lead to a better understanding of disease conditions and enable personalized treatment regimens,” said Robert Spoelgen, Merck’s head of bioelectronics. “We are convinced that bioelectronic devices will play a significant role in the future therapeutic landscape.”

RELATED: Brain-computer interface allowing 'locked-in' ALS patients to communicate earns European approval

Inbrain was founded in 2019 as a spin-out from the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, tasked with developing neural interfaces for reading and modulating brain activity. Its Innervia subsidiary aims to focus the same technology on the vagus cranial nerves.

This past March, Inbrain raised $16.8 million in a series A funding round, co-led by Asabys Partners and Alta Life Sciences, with additional backing from Vsquared Ventures, TruVenturo GmbH, the Spanish Ministry of Science and the Institut Català de Finances’ ICF Venture Tech II fund.