Britain's biggest drug company is gambling £32m on developing advanced electronic implants to treat a host of diseases.
GlaxoSmithKline has launched a $50m (£32.24m) venture capital fund that will invest in companies pioneering new technology in the field of "bioelectronics" or "electroceuticals" and hopes to have the first medicine that effectively speaks the electrical "language" of the body ready for approval by the end of this decade.
Pacemakers, which regulate heart rate, are probably the best known form of medical implant, but in the future electronic devices embedded in the bodies of patients could be treating disorders ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to asthma and lung disease, inflammatory bowel disease and type 2 diabetes.
"We want to help create the medicines of the future and be the catalyst for this work," said Moncef Slaoui, chairman of R&D and architect of GSK's early stage investment strategy. GSK can play the integrating role that is needed to drive this new type of medical treatment all the way from the bench to the patient and this fund is a key part of our efforts."
The Action Potential Venture Capital (APVC) fund will complement the company's own in-house progress in the field after its Bioelectronics R&D unit was established last year. The firm also launched a $1m prize to stimulate innovation in the field this April.
The name of the fund comes from electrical signals called action potentials that pass along the peripheral nerves in the body. Irregular or altered patterns of these impulses may be linked to many diseases. Tapping into and altering them with miniaturised electronic devices could have great therapeutic potential, GSK believes.
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 to regulate food intake in obesity.
One of the first beneficiaries of the fund will be SetPoint Medical, a pioneering Californian company developing an implant to stimulate a nerve in the neck linked to the immune system, which it is hoped could provide treatments for rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease. SetPoint Medical is to receive $5m from the fund.
The aim, over the next five years, is to build an investment portfolio of five to seven companies carrying out similar work and in addition, GSK's Bioelectronics R&D unit is offering up to 20 new exploratory research grants and creating a network of investigators.