Could mapping the bioelectrome lead to limb and organ regeneration drugs?

Morphoceuticals is on a mission to create a new field of bioelectromics with ‘extraordinary’ regenerative potential.

Back in 2022, the news that a team of scientists had used a “multi-drug” cocktail to stimulate the regeneration of a frog’s leg made headlines around the world. The story was remarkable, first because the animal in question, the African clawed frog, doesn’t naturally regenerate complex limbs in adulthood, and second because the drugs were used to establish specific bioelectrical states that stimulated regeneration of the limb.

The scientists behind that research, Tufts University professors Michael Levin and David Kaplan, co-founded a company called Morphoceuticals to explore the potential of their work in regenerative medicine. When we first spoke with Levin, he told us of the company’s intention to build a “turnkey regenerative medicine platform” that would allow the potential of bioelectrical signaling to be harnessed to enable limb and organ regeneration in humans. 

Backed by Juvenescence and Prime Movers Lab, Morphoceuticals recently appointed biotech veteran Dr Jim Jenson to the role of CEO, as it seeks to build the first map of the druggable “bioelectrome” – the electrical network in our bodies that ultimately controls tissue repair and regeneration.

Longevity.Technology: In contrast to the electrons that power the electrical networks in our homes, our bioelectrome is powered by ions, which can be manipulated by so-called “ion channel” drugs to establish different bioelectrical states, including those that promote regeneration. Of course, before you can start drugging anything, you need to know what signals are required to activate a desired response – hence the need for a map. We caught up with Jenson to find out more about Morphoceuticals’ immediate objectives and the path towards human applications of its technology.

Jenson co-founded Dicerna Pharmaceuticals, which was acquired by Novo Nordisk for $3.3 billion.

On its web site, Morphoceuticals describes the bioelectrome as a “form of non-neural, multi-cellular cognition” which tells cells what tissues to build and, crucially, when to stop. Jenson says the regenerative potential of the bioelectrome is what attracted him to the company.

“I’ve been in this business for 35 years now, but what is what is unique about Morphoceuticals is the extraordinary opportunity to develop a higher level ‘omics’ – above proteomics and genomics and transcriptomics – with such potential for unlocking real control of tissue repair, an organ regeneration,” he says.

Vast untapped potential

Of course, Morphoceuticals didn’t discover the bioelectrome. Indeed, Jenson says its existence has been known for over a hundred years.

“In the last few decades, we’ve developed our understanding of what leads to this circuitry – the ion channels, that every cell is a little battery in every living thing that makes currents, and that cells work collectively to control shape and form,” he says. “It’s just an extraordinary area that is yet untapped by pharma, to a significant degree. But it can be tapped.”

Jenson’s confidence stems from the fact that the tools already exist to allow the bioelectrome to be quantified.

“The tools for measuring bioelectricity exist, both the currents and the specific voltage states on a cellular basis,” he says. “And then the multi-omics tools exist at a very sophisticated level for measuring in each condition, which voltage channels are prominent. Finally, now the artificial intelligence capability also exists to allow us to analyze the vast amounts of data that will be generated.”

Using AI to crack the bioelectrome code

Mapping the bioelectrome sounds like an undertaking similar to that of the Human Genome Project, or the more recent Human Immunome Project, but Jenson says Morphoceuticals task should be in some ways easier than those initiatives.

“There are only 400 ion channels that need to be opened or closed – it’s a finite number, much smaller than the genome,” he says. “And the tools are there to measure it, so we don’t have to create the tools as we did in the genome project. And there are far fewer moving parts in the bioelectrome than in the immunome, for example, so I think it’s a more approachable task to map it, and I think it will emerge within a shorter timeframe than the other omics.”

To begin with, Jenson explains that Morphoceuticals will collect the relevant electrophysiological data, along with the corresponding multi-omics and cellular data, for resting states versus regenerating states, and for disease states versus healthy states in tissues.

“After we’ve collected all that data, we’ll need artificial intelligence to tell us the signatures associated with healthy and regenerating states,” he says. “And then, as those signatures are identified, we’ll be able to use AI again to identify the triggers that we can pull for tissue growth and regeneration.”

The path to a new therapeutic field

To date, Morphoceuticals has existed in essentially virtual form, supporting the ongoing work in its co-founders’ labs at Tufts. One of Jenson’s first objectives is to turn the company into an “operational entity.”

“Over the next year or two we’re going to build out the team, the first elements of which are already in place, and build the toolkit that can help us generate the first map of a druggable bioelectrome,” he says.

In terms of which therapeutic areas Morphoceuticals will target with its technology, Jenson indicates it’s too early to say.

“We’re going to let the science lead us,” he says. “The stump health work that we started in the frogs is still underway, but our emphasis now is primarily on building a much broader picture of the signatures. The science will tell us where to focus – what is most tractable and for what are there good translational models – the usual drug discovery components.”

“This will provide the path to triggers for tissue growth and regeneration for maladies that are addressable, with translational models, and we will have products going toward the clinic. Perhaps even more importantly, we will have cracked open the bioelectrome as a way of introducing new therapeutic modalities, opening up a new field of bioelectromics on which other companies will build.”