The pharmaceutical industry is transforming right before our eyes.
Since the 19th century, medicine centered around using chemistry and biology to treat human ailments. Pharmaceutical companies have developed drugs that interact biochemically with our bodies in order to treat various diseases and conditions. But that is quickly changing.
Someday in the not too distant future, a number of pharmaceutical companies will transform into bioelectronics companies. Their treatments developed for patients will consist of tiny implantable devices that speak the body’s electric language.
GlaxoSmithKline and Google in Bioelectronics
That vision of the future of medicine became more clear with the recent announcement of a joint venture. The two companies involved are drug giant GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) and Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOG).
GSK and Alphabet’s Verily Life Sciences are setting up a company called Galvani Bioelectronics, which is to be 55% owned by GSK and 45% by Alphabet. It will be funded to the tune of $715 million over seven years by both companies.
The goal of Galvani Bioelectronics will be to develop and commercialize bioelectronic medicines. These “medicines” – called electroceuticals – will treat disease by targeting the electrical signals passing along the body’s nerves rather than through chemical or biological drugs.
Many of the body’s processes are controlled by electrical signals between the peripheral nervous system and its organs. In other words, the peripheral nervous system is the information superhighway and fundamental control system in our bodies. In chronic diseases, these signals along this “highway” become distorted.
The tiny implanted bioelectronics devices – attached to individual nerves in the peripheral nervous system – will correct the irregular patterns. Most of these implanted devices will be about the size of a grain of rice.
Chronic diseases that can be helped by electroceuticals include arthritis, asthma and diabetes. Animal testing has already shown such treatment to be effective in treating type 2 diabetes.
Pioneers in Bioelectronics
It is not really surprising that GSK and Alphabet have joined forces. These two companies are pioneers in the field, beginning their efforts in 2012.
GlaxoSmithKline became the first pharmaceutical company to make electroceuticals a core component of its long-term strategy. And it is still the only big drug firm investing major money into the field.
It has set up a global network of about 50 research collaborations in bioelectronics with both academic researchers and small biotech firms. In addition, it has invested $50 million into the specialist bioelectronics fund – Action Potential Venture Capital – which has invested into six start-ups.
Google began, also in 2012, with a project to put a tiny computer inside a contact lens. This “smart lens” is now being developed by Novartis (NYSE: NVS) and will allow diabetics to monitor themselves by continuously measuring the glucose level in their tears.
Since then, Google’s Verily division has developed other similar diagnostic implants.
I fully expect the new company, Galvani Bioelectronics, to become the leader in the field by far.
After all, you have GSK’s expertise in life sciences and clinical development. Then you add Google’s expertise in miniaturization, electronics, software development and data analysis. It seems like a marriage made in heaven.
The Future of Bioelectronics
The current Galvani chairman, GSK’s Moncef Slaoui, expects clinical trials on bioelectronic medicines for three different diseases to begin within 18 months. And they could reach the market within a decade.
So this transformation of the pharmaceutical industry won’t happen tomorrow. But it is coming.
And it will be big. It may even be on the order of what Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) did for phones.
Of course, for use of electroceuticals to become widespread, technology still needs to advance. Improvements need to made in power sources, for example. Wireless rechargeable batteries that last for decades would be ideal.
This new age in medicine is coming. And at the forefront will be GlaxoSmithKline and Alphabet. That’s great news for long-term shareholders.