GlaxoSmithKline‘s (NYSE:GSK) interest in tiny neural implants is stronger than ever, even amid declining earnings and flopped drug candidates that have turned CEO Andrew Witty into a lame duck who will step aside in 2017.
Despite the turmoil, the British pharma giant is investing $50 million in so-called bioelectronics via Action Potential Ventures, aiming to fund companies like SetPoint Medical. GSK also has 30 scientists devoted to studying tiny implants that have the potential to modulate the nervous system for therapeutic purposes, according to Bloomberg.
The effort is led by GSK vice president Kris Famm, who told the news service that the company’s overall investment in the field will be “very much on par with those you often see quoted for molecular medicines.” In other words, the total will be in the billions of dollars.
Nevertheless, Glaxo isn’t about to focus solely on devices, knowing they won’t turn the company around in the short term. GSK’s goal is to bring a product to market in the next decade.
To do that it will need to develop long-lasting power sources and new materials. Building the technology won’t be as hard as figuring out how to deploy it within the body’s complex nervous system, and determining how to modulate individual neurons. GSK plans to run 3 clinical trials examining drug-device combinations for major chronic diseases using other companies’ devices, and is aiming to develop an implant of its own in 2019.
Alongside GSK chairman of global R&D and vaccines Moncef Slaoui, and colleagues from MIT and UPenn, Famm laid out a vision of bioelectronics (also called “electroceuticals”) in a 2013 paper published in Nature. The tiny, next-gen implants would be installed atop nerves, and use electric signals to modify their behavior. The devices would be deployed in the peripheral vascular, not the brain.
Despite the daunting biological challenges, the economics show potential. Although it can take 10 years and $2 billion to bring a new drug to market, Famm hopes that neural implants of the future can be modified slightly to treat a variety of diseases, making 2nd and 3rd versions far easier and less costly to produce than the next potential blockbuster medication.
GSK’s speculative, long-term and potentially very lucrative bet on bioelectronics dates back to 2011, when Famm was tasked with finding areas of convergence between technology, IT and biology, according to the news service. After attending a presentation on vestibular implants placed in the inner ear, which improve balance using electrodes that interact with the nerves and brain, Famm reportedly realized that the approach could used in other parts of the body as well.
Although no neural implants of the type desired by GSK are close to commercialization, FDA-approved devices that modulate the nervous system or brain include deep-brain stimulation devices for Parkinson’s made by Medtronic (NYSE:MDT), Boston Scientific (NYSE:BSX) and St. Jude Medical (NYSE:STJ), as well as NeuroPace‘s RNS System to treat epilepsy and the Maestro weight loss device made by EnteroMedics (NSDQ:ETRM).