GlaxoSmithKline R&D chief touts the future of 'electroceuticals'

GlaxoSmithKline R&D chief Moncef Slaoui

Looking beyond the small-molecule drugs and biologic treatments that have dominated therapeutic development over the past generation, GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) all-encompassing R&D department is trying to get a jump on the future of medicine, and research chief Moncef Slaoui is betting that there's a great deal of promise in drug-mimicking electronics.

In an interview with The China Post, Slaoui said GSK, like every major drug developer, will eventually face a diminishing returns curve in drug R&D. In the long term, how many more therapies can the industry possibly discover using only traditional biochemistry?

"We asked ourselves this question about 2 1/2 years ago," Slaoui told the newspaper, "challenging ourselves to see if there are other modalities that would open up new horizons ... and when we thought about it, we realized that when we use chemical structure or recombinant protein as a medicine, what we use in fact are the structures of these medicines to interact with the structure of a receptor or protein in our body ... So we asked the question: 'Can we use electrical impulses to modify the way organs function?'"

GSK's answer, of course, is yes, and Slaoui believes tiny, nerve-stimulating implantable devices--or "electroceuticals"--will play a big role in the future of therapeutics. In contrast to the implants already produced by medical device outfits the world over, the technology Slaoui envisions would work on a much smaller scale, eschewing the "bulldozer" effect of current neuromodulators in favor of pinpoint stimulators.

To get started, GSK unveiled a $50 million fund last year with the goal of supporting 5 to 7 drug and device startups in the bioelectronics field over the next 5 years. Its first beneficiary, 2013 FierceMedicalDevices' Fierce 15 honoree SetPoint Medical, is designing a device that can stimulate the vagus nerve to trigger the body's natural inflammatory reflex and treat symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease.

The nascent field faces a host of challenges, Slaoui acknowledges, including designing small enough devices, safely implanting them and making sure they properly interact with bodily functions. But, thanks to its budget and expertise, GSK is in a position to pioneer an emerging space, and that dovetails with its goal of creating "the medicines of the future," Slaoui said.

- read the interview

Special Report: FierceMedicalDevices' 2013 Fierce 15 - SetPoint Medical