We are pursuing a new scientific field that could one day result in a novel class of medicines that would not be pills or injections, but miniaturised, implantable devices.
Bioelectronic medicine is a vision far from today’s medical practice. But we believe that one day, tiny devices, smaller than grains of rice, could be used to restore health in a range of chronic diseases centred on organs and biological functions.
These devices would be programmed to read and modify electrical signals that pass along nerves of the body, including irregular or altered impulses that can occur in association with a broad range of diseases. The hope is that through these devices, disorders as diverse as inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, asthma, hypertension and diabetes could be treated. We believe bioelectronic medicines could allow us to treat these with greater precision and fewer side effects than with conventional medicines.
Treatment of medical conditions with electrical impulses has been used in the past – from cardiac pacemakers to deep brain stimulation in Parkinson’s. But existing devices target large areas of tissue indiscriminately, rather than honing in on specific groups of neurons within circuits. We believe that recent scientific advances have made it possible to control specific sets of neurons, which create the potential to develop more precise bioelectronic medicines.
Building a bioelectronics research community
In 2013, we outlined our vision for bioelectronic medicines in this commentary piece in Nature, and with other experts in the bioelectronics community, we have also published a roadmap for the foundational research we believe is needed to make this vision a reality.
Although we believe this is an area now worth pursuing, we don’t believe we can succeed in this field alone. We recognise that experts across a range of disciplines need to work together. Unlike more traditional areas of science, bioelectronics requires the combined skills of world-leading physiologists, engineers, neuroscientists and informatics experts. That is why we are seeking to grow and integrate a research network that will become a new bioelectronics community.
We are supporting the development of a new bioelectronics research community in three ways:
- We have an exploratory funding programme which supports more than 30 projects, across more than 25 institutions around the world. We are continuing to fund new research efforts with a particular focus on neural signal analysis for recording data-sets, higher resolution interfacing for the targeted disease nerves, and circuit mapping / tracing where proof of principle is achieved in disease focus projects currently underway.
- We have also created Action Potential Venture Capital (APVC) Limited, a new $50m strategic venture capital fund that invests in companies that pioneer bioelectronic medicines and technologies. The fund focuses on investments in three areas: new start-up companies that aim to pursue the vision of bioelectronic medicines; existing companies with technologies that are interacting with the peripheral nervous system through first-generation devices that can stimulate or block electrical impulses; and companies advancing technology platforms that will underpin these treatment methods.
- In December 2013 we held an international conference for the bioelectronic research community where researchers were able to build relationships and share early findings. Through this conference, the community identified the challenge of creating an implantable device for pre-clinical experiments that can read and write the body’s electrical language as the most catalytic to the progression of bioelectronic medicines. We offered a $1m prize for the solution to this challenge.
To encourage more scientists to participate in the challenge, we launched a $5m Innovation Challenge Fund (ICF) in September 2014 in order to fund teams who wish to participate. To encourage open innovation in the field of bioelectronic medicine, any tools and technologies that come from the ICF funded work and the Innovation Challenge’s winning entry will be made freely available to the global research community. The intention is that this will foster an environment of collaboration between researchers from different institutions, which in turn will accelerate the development of this new generation of medicines.
Researchers looking for more details on GSK's bioelectronics funding programmes should visit our partnerships section.
We believe that bioelectronic medicine will open up a whole new front in our mission to control and reverse disease. Our goal is to have the first medicine that speaks the electrical language of our body ready for approval in a decade.