GlaxoSmithKline wants to explore whether diseases can be treated and health restored by modulating neural impulses in the body. Last week the British drug company announced it will support a nascent field it calls “electroceuticals” with funds for 20 external labs and a $1 million prize.
“We see this as a new treatment modality—something in parallel with small molecules, protein therapeutics, and vaccines—by which we hope we can treat diseases,” says Kristoffer Famm, GSK vice president of bioelectronics R&D. GSK sees potential given the established medical use of implanted electrical devices, such as pacemakers, and recent advances toward miniaturized interfaces and cellular-level control. For example, lab results have shown it’s possible to manipulate neural signals to affect inflammation.
To jump-start efforts, GSK will fund up to 40 researchers in 20 outside labs to conduct exploratory work on mapping neural circuits and finding disease associations. Once it sets up a multidisciplinary network, GSK will help integrate efforts. In December, the company will hold a global forum of research leaders to lay out a plan for future work. As an added stimulus, GSK will then offer a $1 million prize for the research group that overcomes a key hurdle identified by the forum.
As part of a review of the therapeutic landscape for the next decade or two, GSK spent more than a year visiting with academic scientists about electroceuticals, Famm says. He, along with GSK R&D Chairman Moncef Slaoui and scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania, and Feinstein Institute of Medical Research, in New York state, explain their vision of electroceuticals in a recent Nature article (DOI: 10.1038/496159a). Work is under way at these centers on mapping neural circuits, deciphering disease-related neural codes, identifying intervention points, understanding how to create a therapeutic response, and building biocompatible devices.
GSK isn’t the only big pharma firm thinking electrically. Johnson & Johnson researchers recently proposed moving beyond seeking “single magic-bullet drugs” and looking instead at therapies that also incorporate electric, magnetic, robotic, and digital approaches (Nature Rev., DOI: 10.1038/nrd3944). But, they say, “numerous scientific, regulatory, and commercial challenges remain in implementing and capturing value from such ‘beyond the pill’ integrative solutions.”