GSK supercharges R&D for miniaturized bioelectronic nerve implant for chronic disease

GSK Vaccines Chairman Moncef Slaoui

Already a growing presence in bioelectronics, GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) is taking its efforts to the next level with plans to roll out implantable devices that send electric pulses to treat certain chronic diseases.

The company wants to kick off clinical trials in 2017 for implanted products that address three chronic conditions, including an autoimmune disorder and a metabolic disease, GSK's Moncef Slaoui told IEEE Spectrum. If everything goes to plan, the company will have results from the studies within three years, Slaoui said. He is GSK's head of vaccines, and previously served as R&D chairman.

GSK will focus on devices that can be implanted on peripheral nerves in the body, because controlling signals in the brain is "orders of magnitude" more difficult, Slaoui said. Doctors would put a tiny electric device on a nerve that leads to a targeted organ, such as the kidneys or the spleen, to treat chronic diseases including obesity, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, asthma and arthritis. The product would be able to record signals from the nervous system and only send pulses when needed.

Eventually, the technique could be routinely used in doctors' offices. Slaoui outlined a process where tiny surgical robots laparoscopically insert the devices in humans. "You punch a little hole, and (the robotic tool) uses a 'smart' head with a camera to find its way to the viscera, then a tool grafts the electrode to the nerve," Slaoui sad. "You can walk out 10 minutes later."

Still, GSK might face some obstacles along the way, IEEE points out. The device would require a miniaturized chip and tiny electrodes that interact with a single nerve, and its materials have to be compatible with human anatomy. The product would also need a wireless power source because batteries give off too much heat, Slaoui said.

But GSK seems poised for the challenge. The company has been working on bioelectronics therapy for years, kicking off an R&D unit dedicated to the area in 2012. In 2013, GSK established a $50 million venture fund aimed at bioelectronics. The next year, the company rolled out a $5 million innovation challenge in 2014 to spur development for a miniaturized, implantable nerve device.

Even though GSK has stayed quiet about its progress, the company recently made some moves to bolster its efforts in the field. In February, GSK said that it would team up with Belgian startup Nuviant Medical to use the company's neurostimulation implant systems to flesh out its bioelectronics technology.

The deal will help GSK as it competes in a crowded market. Med tech giants such as Medtronic ($MDT) and startups including SetPoint Medical are hard at work on related technology and are rolling out miniaturized nerve implants to treat chronic conditions.

- read the IEEE Spectrum story