Bioelectronics: skip the fiction, this is science

Bioelectronic medicines will use neural electric impulses to treat diseases.

Bioelectronic medicines will use neural electric impulses to treat diseases.

Every once in a while I get the chance to meet someone here at GSK who blows my mind. I mean, this company is filled with incredibly bright and passionate people—especially in our R+D group—but often what they are talking about goes above my head.

But a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview Kris Famm, Head of the Bioelectronics R+D Unit at GSK. His team is working to bring about a whole new class of medicines that will use neural electrical impulses to treat diseases. These medicines are really tiny devices that are attached to specific nerves that control electrical impulses to and from organs related to various diseases. The way he spoke about his work was so simple—and filled with passion—that I couldn’t help get excited for where this area of science is headed.

I asked Kris to describe these medicines, explain how they work, and tell me what the challenges are:

“Our vision is that you will have something that is at the size of a grain of rice, or smaller, that can be  introduced through a minimally-invasive keyhole surgery procedure and latched on to a nerve that goes to my pancreas or my liver or my spleen or my lungs. Today, if you look at medical devices, they are substantially larger. If you look at a pacemaker, for example, it’s more of a hockey puck type of size. And therein lies a big challenge.”

Sounds like science fiction, right? Well it isn’t. It’s more like science non-fiction. In fact, Kris and Moncef Slaoui, GSK’s Chairman of R+D, were interviewed by Michael Behar, and the result is the cover story of this week’s New York Times Magazine . It’s a fascinating article, and we’ve posted interviews with Kris and Moncef on our YouTube channel that help bring it to life even more.

We believe this area shows real promise. That’s why we’re putting real resources behind it. Last year, we announced a $1 million dollar prize to be awarded to the scientists who are first to create a miniaturized, fully implantable device that can read, write and block the body’s electrical signals to treat disease, and a $50 million strategic venture capital fund that will invest in companies that pioneer bioelectronic medicines and technologies.