British pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is deepening its commitment to bioelectrical medicine by scheduling clinical trials next year to test how effectively tiny electrical implants can treat at least three chronic diseases.
The trials for the unspecified conditions — which include one autoimmune disorder and one metabolic disease — would commence in 2017 and results will be available within three years, GSK Vaccines Chairman Moncef Slaoui told IEEE Spectrum. He said that GSK initially is focusing on tiny devices implanted on peripheral nerves of the body to treat a range of conditions, rather than controlling brain signals, which are "orders of magnitude" more complicated.
Bioelectric implants — also known as electroceuticals — are tiny devices, as small as a grain of rice, that are attached to a nerve to read and modulate electrical signals generated by the body's nervous system. These devices offer the promise of targeted treatments, affecting only a specific organ without the side effects commonly associated with traditional pills and injectable drugs.
"Future bioelectronic medicines will detect the action potentials in peripheral nerves and selectively and specifically block or alter these signals. Interventions that speak the electrical language of the body will become central treatments in a host of major chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma, hypertension, arthritis, pain and possibly even cancer," GSK states on its web site.
Medical devices that utilize electrical impulses (neurostimulation devices) to treat symptoms of conditions such as Parkinson's disease and epilepsy are nothing new, but are yet imprecise and are associated with unwanted side effects.
"At present, electrical devices activate or inhibit cells in an area of tissue indiscriminately, muddying clinical effects," explains a GSK paper on the topic. "For example, electrodes that stimulate the vagus nerve enclose approximately 100,000 fibres, which innervate many different internal organs. Similarly, deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease affects many cells other than those that control movement, leading to emotional and cognitive side effects."
In order to avoid these side effects, the company says researchers are developing devices that target individual neurons in a specific circuit, modulating the action potentials that flow through these neurons.
GSK is deeply committed to this emerging area of medicine. The company created the $50-million Action Potential Venture Capital fund to support startups that research and develop bioelectronic devices. A notable investment is SetPoint Medical, which makes a neuromodulation implant that stimulates the vagus nerve to treat autoimmune disorders.
Since 2013, GSK has funded at least 50 labs and startups, including earmarking a $1 million dollar prize for innovation in the emerging area of bioelectronics research. According to IEEE Spectrum, Slaoui says three finalist teams are competing for the prize, and he hopes to announce the winner within the next 12 months.
In addition, early this year, it was reported that GSK is talking to Qualcomm about a medtech joint venture to develop pharma-related "new technology" that could involve electroceuticals.
This field is a long-term bet, and technical challenges remain, such as developing biocompatible, miniaturized chips and tiny electrodes that can interface with a single nerve, as well as making wireless power sources for the implants, because traditional embedded batteries produce heat that could damage sensitive nerve and tissue, notes IEEE Spectrum.
But GSK hopes to take opportunities early on, with hopes of revolutionizing medicine. Already, Slaoui envisions laparascopic surgeries to implant the tiny devices becoming routine.
“We want to make bioelectric medicine something that happens in the doctor’s office rather than the hospital,” Slaoui told the publication. “You punch a little hole, and [the robotic tool] uses a “smart” head with a camera to find its way to the viscera, then a tool grafts the electrode to the nerve. You can walk out 10 minutes later.”