GSK dives deeper into electroceuticals with clinical trials on the horizon

While drug development is still at the forefront for GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), the pharma giant has been quietly working on electroceuticals since 2012. It aims to bring a product to market within the next decade.

The pharma established an R&D unit for electroceuticals, also known as bioelectronics, back in 2012 and launched its $50 million venture fund the following year. It has funded a number of early-stage electroceuticals, including Valencia, CA-based Setpoint's anti-inflammatory device. The theory behind electroceuticals involves using tiny implantable devices to effect biochemical changes in the body that are typically brought about by drugs. Electroceutical devices would, in theory, control the body's electrical impulses, inducing it to heal itself from illness. The devices could be used in combination with drugs or replace them altogether.

GSK has had a rough time of late, following the patent expiry of several top-selling drugs and the disappointing launch of the follow-up to its megablockbuster asthma treatment Advair. Add in the multimillion-dollar fine from its 2014 Chinese bribery scandal and pushback in the U.S. on ever-increasing drug prices, and it's understandable why the pharma is seeking other sources of revenue. It is the only company among its peers working on electroceuticals.

GSK currently has early prototypes in animal testing and plans to kick off human trials using third-party devices in 2017, Bloomberg reported. GSK is partnering with Belgian neurostim startup Nuviant Medical, using Nuviant's neurostimulation implant as a platform for electroceutical efforts. In January this year, rumors surfaced that the British pharma was teaming up with Qualcomm ($QCOM) on a $1 billion JV to dive deeper into med tech, which could include electroceuticals.

The company plans to start testing its own electroceutical device in 2019, but it will be a long road to commercialization. Several hurdles still have to be cleared, including coming up with long-term power sources for implants and developing implant materials that won't degrade in the body over time. Another challenge is developing a comprehensive understanding of how, exactly, the nervous system works so that scientists can target specific neurons to cause effects in particular organs.

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