Three years ago, international drug firm GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) unveiled a new effort to create tiny implantable devices that would use electricity, not drugs, to alter the course of a range of diseases.
Today GSK and Verily Life Sciences, the biotech unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOG), said they would start a new company together, Galvani Bioelectronics, to pursue electronic therapeutics. They will contribute $715 million total over time, with GSK owning 55 percent and Verily 45 percent.
It’s not a new concept. Implants in the heart, brain, and chest already treat cardiovascular disease, depression, epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease with electrical impulses. But Galvani wants to make devices that are smaller and smarter, modifying a patient’s disease-associated neural activity on the fly. Verily chief technology officer Brian Otis said they would first be about the size of “half a sugar cube,” but the ultimate goal would be roughly the size of a grain of rice.
A lot would go into them. They would have to supply their own power with tiny rechargeable batteries, they would have onboard sensors to read a patient’s nerve signals, the smarts to interpret those signals, and the power to zap out new signals to correct some type of disease state. The devices would also communicate with the outside world, although Otis said they would make corrective adjustments to a patient’s nerve signals without external input—in what engineers called a “closed loop system.”
Building instant feedback and adjustment into powerful implants would be a huge step over current devices. Otis mentioned a recently published study, unrelated to Galvani, that showed frequent stimulation of the vagus nerve—a central nerve that runs from the brain to the midsection—can decrease the amount of toxic proteins called cytokines, produced by the immune system, potentially helping patients with the autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis. (The study was conducted with a device made by a company that counts GSK as a main investor.)
“With Galvani, we’re trying to be more specific where we stimulate, by getting as close to the organ [of interest] as possible,” said Otis.
Verily has been working on other medical device projects, including a contact lens that monitors a person’s glucose levels. That work, plus its parent company’s ability to manage vast amounts of data, makes Verily “well suited” to build bioelectronics, Otis said. A “deep collaboration” between Verily and Google extends to data analytics and machine learning. For example, he said, to adjust a patient’s nerve signals on the fly Galvani’s devices might have to calibrate multiple data streams coming from the patient, perhaps from wearable sensors.
GSK is bringing to the joint venture its knowledge of disease biology, Otis said. One unknown the Galvani scientists, split between GSK’s Stevenage, U.K.-based research park and Verily’s South San Francisco, CA headquarters, will explore is the optimal location for altering disease-associated nerve signals. Will they have to interact with individual nerve cells, and if so, which ones?
In addition to the daunting engineering, medical, and regulatory obstacles that such devices would face, their makers must also overcome questions about medical data privacy and security. As described, the Galvani devices would continuously record a person’s nerve signals, potentially transmitting the information to a third party. And the devices would be accessible, as pacemakers are today, for a wireless recharge or to change settings.
In a recent survey, digital health investor Rock Health asked 1,000 respondents with whom they would feel comfortable sharing their health data. Biopharma companies, tech companies, and the government all received the lowest marks, under 20 percent.
The deal to create Galvani, which will initially have about 30 employees, needs to clear antitrust approvals. The firm is named after the 19th century Italian scientist who discovered electrical impulses in muscles. He prompted a dead frog’s leg to twitch when sparked with electricity, an experiment familiar to many schoolchildren today.