A few years ago, Moncef Slaoui, then GlaxoSmithKline's head of research, challenged his team to come up with a new pillar of medicine.
The British drugmaker already makes traditional small-molecule pills and biologic therapies made with living cells, and it sells vaccines and consumer products. One area not yet tapped by medicine? The electrical signals that govern many of the functions in our bodies.
By better understanding our bodies' electrical systems, GSK hopes to design technology small and smart enough to manipulate them and possibly conquer diseases from rheumatoid arthritis to asthma to diabetes.
"If we look 10 years out, we should have a number of tiny devices—we call them bioelectronic medicines, because they are medicines—that will be treating conditions we use molecular medicines for today," Kris Famm, head of GSK's bioelectronics research and development unit, said in a telephone interview. "We are quite convinced this can be a class of new therapies."
The technology GSK envisions, which is also known as electroceuticals, would involve implanting tiny devices on nerve bundles associated with specific organ functions. Its broadest applications are still years from the market, but Famm said he thinks the biology is becoming well-enough understood that the challenge becomes one of engineering: being able to miniaturize electronic devices enough to very specifically stimulate certain nerves, and do so in an autonomous way, detecting and reacting to problems in the body. The approach should be so specific it avoids the off-target side effects that can derail otherwise promising medicines, he said.