GlaxoSmithKline stakes a pioneering effort to launch 'electroceutical' R&D

GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) top scientists have staked out a pioneering role in an incipient field in the drug discovery world, rolling out a slate of new initiatives designed to sound the starting gun in a long-running effort to develop new therapeutics that can fight disease by targeting the electrical signals that harmonize human biology.

GSK plans to devote time, money and attention to creating complex new neural stimulation devices that could tinker with disease at the cellular level, something of a cross between a device and molecular medicines that could help fine-tune complex nerve bundles that control organs and body functions.

Glaxo is fielding a virtual team initially with plans to fund work by 40 scientists in 20 external labs, hoping to spark some new thinking as they move to identify the first "electroceuticals" that can be taken into the lab. To help add some excitement to the process, GSK is also looking to identify an early challenge in the field with plans to offer a $1 million prize to the scientist or team that can come up with a solution. 

Among the institutions that will initially be joining forces in this endeavor are MIT, the University of Pennsylvania and the Feinstein Institute of Medical Research.

Almost every disease that GlaxoSmithKline works in--including cardiology--has a neural circuit that is involved in controlling the biology involved. And GSK research chief Moncef Slaoui, who delights in finding new translational research fields to explore, has set his sights on becoming a leader in a field that could crest in the next 10 to 20 years.

"Those things have come together," Kris Famm, who's heading up the endeavor for GlaxoSmithKline, tells FierceBiotech. "Now is the time to make a long-term bet in a field we don't feel exists today."

One possible target, he explains, would be the cytokine storms that trigger inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. New electrical stimulation devices could be used to fine tune the nerves, regulating the production of cytokines and treating the disease.

It won't be quick.

"I think we need this year and next to get proof of principle," says Famm. Neural circuits have to be mapped, then there's target identification and validation. In a couple of years, with good understanding of the right intervention point and the signaling pattern in animal models, GSK could start prototyping a treatment device. Moving from animals to human studies could take a couple of more years, with clinical programs varying in length depending on the disease, more or less the way it works with molecular medicines.

- here's a report from Nature

Special Report: GlaxoSmithKline - Biopharma's Top R&D Spenders - 2012