A model test of this approach is the budding field of bioelectronics, which builds on the body's in-house battery charger of electrical pulses, transmitted through billions of nerve fibers, to restore the healthy functioning of damaged tissues, organs or functions. "Electroceuticals" already exist in a primitive state, such as deep brain stimulation for Parkinson's disease, but tend to mimic the actions of conventional drugs in lacking a precise targeting capability.
What the field does not have is a convener – but now one big Pharma player is stepping up to the plate. The business angel is GSK; more specifically, its global Chair of R&D and Vaccines, Moncef Slaoui, a PhD in molecular biology who began investigating bioelectronics as a treatment pathway shortly after assuming his post in 2006. "I see it as a new layer of opportunity beyond the conventional biochemical approach that has defined developments in our field for the last century," Slaoui tells Pharm Exec.An advocate of this and other forms of "new science," Slaoui shares with company CEO Andrew Witty a desire to upend the traditional notion of what constitutes medicines research, particularly by bringing different scientific and functional disciplines to the table. It's a world where progress in finding cures and treatments may depend as much on process improvements through materials engineering as it does on the standardized chemical assay. "Bioelectronics represents the new frontier in multi-disciplinary collaboration, which is another reason why we find it so appealing," Slaoui says.
Partly because the science is so new, GSK is taking a low-key stance as a facilitator of ideas rather than trying to dictate the terms of engagement. In April 2013, a dedicated Bioelectronics R&D unit under the R&D Group's Exploratory Funding strategy was established to provide modest grants to support critical early-stage projects. To date, 15 projects have been approved with 13 leading academic institutions, including Duke, the University of Pennsylvania, the Feinstein Institute, Academic Medical Center of Amsterdam, and the NOVA Medical School in Lisbon. The grants are modest, mostly in the one million dollar range, and will consider, among other things, how nerves in the body relate to particular diseases, to understand the "firing patterns" of these nerves, and identifying new technologies to enable a better interface with nerves and nerve fibres.
Conditions being studied include rheumatoid arthritis and inflammation sensing, overactive bladder, inflammatory bowel disease, and type 2 diabetes. "The brain is a peripheral area to us, because of its daunting complexity. We think bioelectronics has its most promising applications in areas like metabolic disorders, weight loss, and inflammation, particularly in tracing signals that link this latter condition to the onset of cardiovascular disease," Slaoui notes.
To further spark the creative process, GSK sponsored in December an invitation-only Bioelectronics Medicine Summit in New York. The key goal was to identify one specific project to answer the following question: what is the most critical hurdle to overcome in achieving the vision of the first bioelectronic medicine? The agreed answer: "Creating a miniaturized, fully implantable device that can read, write and block the body's electric signals to treat disease." The next step is for an affiliated expert review committee to set parameters for individual proposals, review submissions and award a challenge grant to the winner. To start the process, the prize project parameters will be posted online, on February 1, at http://www.gsk.com/bioelectronics. Selection of the best candidate is set for mid year and will be announced simultaneously with a white paper on conclusions of the December summit.
Practically speaking, how far away is this work from reality – is bioelectronics the ultimate pipedream in big pharma's often absurdly over-promised pipeline? So far, Slaoui is playing the optimist. "Assuming we continue to collaborate, I think we are just 10 years away from being able to take these concepts forward toward commercialization."