Based: Stevenage, England
For the last four years, pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline has been at the forefront of an effort to develop tiny implantable devices that can be placed on nerves throughout the body, where they will send signals to nearby organs to fight disease. This emerging field of research, called “bioelectronics,” came one step closer to commercialization in August 2016, when GSK teamed up with Verily to launch Galvani Bioelectronics.
The two companies pledged to invest as much as £540 million (more than $700 million) to develop prototype devices aimed at controlling a variety of chronic conditions. Pending one final regulatory approval from China, Galvani will set up shop and start working on Type 2 diabetes and two other diseases that have not yet been named but that will be in the field of autoimmune and endocrine disorders, says Moncef Slaoui, chairman of GSK’s global vaccines group and board chair for Galvani. Some of the micro-devices will stimulate nerve transmissions, while others will block them.
What makes Galvani fierce
Ever since committing to bioelectronics a few years back, GSK has been building a “nerve atlas,” a giant database of information about how each nerve in the body affects organs and diseases. GSK approached dozens of companies in the search for the ideal partner to translate that knowledge into marketable technologies, all of which declined to participate because they weren’t sure health regulators would be open to approving nerve-altering devices, Slaoui says. Verily, formerly known as Google Life Sciences, jumped at the opportunity to take on the regulatory hurdles, as well as the more immediate challenge of figuring out how to make the micro-devices, he says.
“The biggest challenge by far is figuring out how to power a very small device on a nerve that’s close to an organ,” Slaoui says. “You can’t store too much energy in the device, because energy equates to heat. So wireless powering is going to be a critical element, and wirelessly transferring power to a [tiny] device is an unknown.” Another technology hurdle will involve figuring out the ideal interface between the device and the nerve, he explains. “You don’t want it to create heat as the stimulation is happening, yet you don’t want to lose too much of the electrical impulse.”
What to look for
Galvani’s goal is to have a device ready for proof-of-concept trials in 12 to 18 months, and to complete those studies in three years. “Verily is very aggressively enhancing its talent pool of engineers that are going to be working on this,” Slaoui says.
In the meantime, GSK is adding to the nerve atlas, building on knowledge that’s been gathered by scientists around the world about how electrical signals deep inside the human body can be harnessed to fight disease. “All of the work GSK was doing continues, but we’re eager to start working on the first commercial device,” he says. — Arlene Weintraub, @FierceBiotech