Here’s what Google, GlaxoSmithKline are betting big on

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Published: August 6, 2016 6:18:26 AM

Apart from being an obvious leg up for future medicine, Google sister-concern Verily Life Sciences and pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) joining hands to set up Galvani Bioelectronics

Apart from being an obvious leg up for future medicine, Google sister-concern Verily Life Sciences and pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) joining hands to set up Galvani Bioelectronics—that will develop computerised implants to treat diseases by manipulating the nervous system’s electrical signaling—is also about the opportunities for new synergies that technology is creating. Physiological processes—from muscle contraction to secretion of hormones and enzymes—are triggered by electrical impulses generated and transmitted by the nervous system. Many chronic diseases often distort these or are themselves the result of bioelectrical malfunctioning. Galvani’s remit is to create miniature, battery-powered devices that can correct such distortions/malfunctions and eventually treat diseases like arthritis, diabetes and asthma. GSK, which has been investing in bioelectronics since 2012, believes such devices—attached to individual nerves—can correct faulty signals being relayed to organs and, for instance, get lung and tracheal muscles to open up or pancreatic cells to calibrate insulin production or even control inflammatory immune response in the guts of those with Crohn’s disease. Imagine what such devices could then do for those with auto-immune disorders that are largely marked by neural signaling gone haywire. These are currently treated or managed with drugs and biologics—painkillers, steroids and or genetically engineered proteins—but these either have very limited efficacy or serious side-effects. Kevin Tracey, a neurosurgeon and the president of the New York-based Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, has already reported successful manipulation of the immune system through bioelectronics in rats. His start-up, SetPoint Medical—GSK has invested $5 million in it—has already demonstrated considerable success in managing rheumatoid arthritis, which affects 1% of the global population, with a trial implant in a human subject. Though many have expressed concerns with having “remote controls”—as a Purdue University professor put it, to New York Times—to the human body, the gains far outweigh the fears.

Though bioelectronics is generating a lot of buzz now—The Financial Times already sees it becoming a common treatment method, just like drugs and surgery—it is certainly not a new field. Pacemakers were first implanted in a human body in 1958 and deep brain stimulation to manage conditions like Parkinson’s and clinical depression has been in use for some time now. But Galvani perhaps represents a leap for the field like no other. While Verily and GSK will invest $715 million—provided certain milestones are crossed—the company’s parentage is also about the coming together of Verily’s expertise in developing low-power devices, data analytics and development of clinical software and GSK’s virtuosity in drug development and understanding of disease biology. Both companies are already independently invested in bioelectronics: GSK has been on it since 2012, with a $50 million venture capital fund earmarked for the purpose, while Verily has been working developing a smart lens for Novartis that can read blood-glucose levels and has been working with Sanofi—again in diabetes diagnostics. Galvani thus becomes the perfect vehicle for matching competencies for Verily, so far a loss-making venture of holding company Alphabet, and GSK, which must fight off competition from generics and the R&D successes of Big Pharma rivals.

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