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 said 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 trials."At GlaxoSmithKline and in
academia, we are confident that this field will deliver real medicines, and we
are mobilizing resources for this journey," GSK head of bioelectronics
research Kristoffer Famm and colleagues wrote in the journal Nature.
How the study was
Academic centers 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
St Jude Medical, for example 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 pressure.
cells within neural circuits
But in the 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 sources.
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 thought alone.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.