* Goal to treat diseases by targeting electrical signals
* May help in illnesses from diabetes to lung disorders
* GSK aims to play coordinating role in bioelectronics
By Ben Hirschler
LONDON, April 10 GlaxoSmithKline,
Britain's biggest drugmaker, is placing a small but important
bet on a new way of treating diseases by targeting electrical
signals in the body.
The company said on Wednesday it would offer a $1 million
prize to stimulate innovation in the field, as well as funding
up to 40 researchers working in external laboratories.
The initiative is a long-term gamble on the promise of a new
kind of medicine, using electrical impulses rather than the
chemicals or biological molecules found in today's drugs.
GSK believes it is ahead of rivals in the emerging area and,
given the early-stage nature of the work, the drugmaker aims to
play a coordinating role in bringing researchers together.
The new field of "electroceuticals" has also grabbed the
attention of a number of academic research groups which are
already mapping neural circuits in animals and humans, and
working on potential interventions for testing in clinical
"At GlaxoSmithKline and in academia, we are confident that
this field will deliver real medicines, and we are mobilising
resources for this journey," GSK head of bioelectronics research
Kristoffer Famm and colleagues wrote in the journal Nature.
Academic centres involved in the research effort include the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of
Pennsylvania and the Feinstein Institute of Medical Research.
The idea is to use the electrical impulses that form the
"language" of the body's nervous system to address a range of
diseases, from high blood pressure to breathing problems and,
eventually, brain disorders.
Moncef Slaoui, chairman of GSK research and development,
said bioelectronics was set to be the next big wave in medicine,
comparable to the rise in biological therapies over the past 15
years triggered by advances in biotechnology.
"This is our vision for the next 10 to 20 years," he told
Reuters. "In the future, a big chunk of R&D will be doing
The concept is not completely new. Large-scale electrical
devices have been used for years as heart pacemakers and, more
recently, electrical stimulation has been applied to treat
Parkinson's disease, severe depression and some neurological
disorders, as well as to improve bladder control.
St. Jude Medical, for example, on Wednesday won
European approval for a brain implant to treat an incurable
neurological condition called dystonia, while nerve-deadening
devices have also been shown to reduce stubbornly high blood
But in future GSK wants to apply electrical interventions at
the micro level by targeting specific cells within neural
circuits. That could lead to novel nanoscale implants to coax
insulin from cells to treat diabetes or correct muscle
imbalances in lung diseases or regulate food intake in obesity.
The approach could also one day be used to treat disorders
of the brain itself - assuming scientists can decipher the
hugely complex neural circuitry involved.
Exploiting the potential of the new field will involve
combining skills from biology, computing, material science and
nanotechnology, including devising new kinds of miniature power
It is ambitious work but there have been impressive strides
in bringing together biology and computers recently, such the
case of a 58-year-old paralysed woman who last year used an
experimental brain-computer interface to move a robotic arm by
GSK will host a global forum in December to bring research
leaders together and collectively identify one key hurdle in the
field. The $1 million prize will go to the research group able
to overcome that hurdle.