Google and GSK to create nerve implant medicine venture in UK

The world’s largest pharmaceuticals and technology companies, GlaxoSmithKline and Google, are to join forces to create a new company that could create hundreds of new high-tech jobs in the UK.

The companies are to create Galvani Bioelectronics, which will research, develop, and commercialise bioelectronic medicine. Based on treating chronic diseases by harnessing and manipulating the tiny electrical signals that travel along nerve fibres, GSK has been investigating this phenomenon since 2012 and believes it could potentially help to treat conditions like arthritis, asthma and diabetes.

Galvani will be 55 per cent owned by GSK and will bring together the pharmaceuticals company’s formidable expertise in drug discovery, development and biology expertise with that of the life sciences division of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which has recently been renamed Verily. Aimed at creating implantable devices that will attach to individual nerves implicated in these diseases, intercepting and interpreting the signals sent by the brain to the organs affected by the disease (for example, the pancreas in the case of diabetes) identifying the distortions to those signals that characterise the disease and substituting a corrected version, Galvani will also need specific skills from Verily’s side of the business; notable miniaturisation of low-pier electronics, device design and manufacture, and data analytics and development of software for clinical applications.

The companies plan to invest £540m over the next seven years, initially in  clinical proof of principle in inflammatory disorders (such as arthritis), metabolic diseases (such as asthma) and the endocrine system, which is implicated in diabetes. There has already been significant amounts of animal research into the bioelectronic nature of type 2 diabetes, the companies say; such diseases, which persist throughout a patient’s lifetime and require constant treatment, are attractive targets for the bio-sciences sector; any treatment that can reduce the risk of the patient’s condition worsening to the point where they require hospitalisation moreover represents a significant potential for healthcare cost-savings as well as improving quality of life.

“Bioelectronic medicine is a new area of therapeutic exploration, and we know that success will require the confluence of deep disease biology expertise and new highly miniaturised technologies,” commented Verily’s chief technology officer, Brian Otis. ”This partnership provides an opportunity to further Verily’s mission by deploying our focused expertise in low power, miniaturised therapeutics and our data analytics engine to potentially address many disease areas.”

Moncef Slaoui, GSK’s head of vaccines, who pioneered the company’s investment in bioelectronics, will chair Galvani’s board. “If successful, this approach offers the potential for a new therapeutic modality alongside traditional medicines and vaccines,” he said. “Together, we can rapidly accelerate the pace of progress in this exciting field, to develop innovative medicines that truly speak the electrical language of the body.”

Kris Famm, previously a molecular biology researcher at Cambridge University working on  antibody design and later a management consultant at McKinsey, is to be president of Galvani, whose name derives from the Italian biologist who first demonstrated the electrical nature of nerve impulses in the 18th century. Initially, the company will be based in Stevenage within GSK’s global R&D centre, with another research hub in San Francisco, where Verily has a base. There will be 30 scientists, engineers and clinicians dedicated to the projects, and a network of research collaborations will be established with both parent companies, academia and other R&D centres.

The devices envisaged by the company will be about the size of a grain of rice, implanted by keyhole surgery. Kamm’s original inspiration for such devices was vestibular implants, which correct nerve impulses in the inner ear to improve balance. He and Slaoui have also been inspired by the work of Zhing Lin Wang at Georgia Tech, who has developed a system to run devices off electricity self-generated from vibrations in their environment, and by Henry Markham, a leader on the EU’s brain-science research, whip has suggested that the key to treating bioelectronics is to focus on the peripheral nervous system rather than on the brain. Materials are likely to be key to the project; graphene, synthetic boron-doped electrically-conductive diamond, and shape-memory polymers have all been investigated in prior research.