Britain’s biggest pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), is joining forces with Google’s life sciences unit, Verily, to create a new company called, Galvani Bioelectronics, which will focus on fighting diseases by targeting electrical signals in the body.

Through the deal, the companies will together contribute $715 million over seven years to Galvani Bioelectronics, jump-starting a novel field of medicine called bioelectronics.

The new company will be chaired by GSK’s Chairman of Vaccines, Moncef Slaoui, who pioneered the drug maker’s drive into the bioelectronics field. GSK will own 55 % of the company and Google’s Verily will own 45%.

The work will be based at GSK’s Stevenage research centre north of London, with a second research hub in South San Francisco.

Galvani will develop miniaturised, implantable devices that can modify electrical nerve signals. The aim is to modulate irregular or altered impulses that occur in many illnesses.

GSK believes chronic conditions such as diabetes, arthritis and asthma could be treated using these tiny devices, which consist of an electronic collar that wraps around nerves.

GSK’s Head of Bioelectronics Research and President of Galvani, Kris Famm, said the first bioelectronic medicines using these implants to stimulate nerves could be submitted for regulatory approval by 2023.

“We have had really promising results in animal tests, where we’ve shown we can address some chronic diseases with this mechanism, and now we are bringing that work into the clinic,” Famm told Reuters. “Our goal is to have our first medicines ready for regulatory approval in seven years.”

GSK first unveiled its ambitions in bioelectronics in a paper in the journal Nature three years ago and believes it is ahead of Big Pharma rivals in developing medicines that use electrical impulses rather than traditional chemicals or proteins.

Famm said the first generation of implants coming to market would be around the size of a medical pill but the aim eventually is to make them as small as or smaller than a grain of rice, using the latest advances in nanotechnology.

Patients will be treated with keyhole surgery and the hope is that bioelectronic medicine could provide a one-off treatment, potentially lasting decades.

They first have to overcome a few major challenges though, such as making the devices ultra-low power so that they function reliably deep inside the body.

The idea of treating serious disease with electrical impulses is not completely new. Galvani, however, is taking electrical interventions to the micro level, using tiny implants to coax insulin from cells to treat diabetes, for example, or correct muscle imbalances in lung diseases.

Galvani will initially employ around 30 scientists, engineers and clinicians.

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