Google sister company Verily Life Sciences is teaming up with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline to develop implants that will fix problems in our organs using electricity.
To do this, the firms are setting up a new company in the UK, called Galvani Bioelectronics, which will receive up to £540 million over the next seven years.
The idea behind bioelectronic implants is to modify nerve signals in ways that will fix or counteract problems in the body – a bit like heart pacemakers and defibrillator implants already do. The plan is to develop tiny implants that can connect to the nerves linked to specific organs, and for these implants to be powered wirelessly and operate automatically.
“Many of the processes of the human body are controlled by electrical signals firing between the nervous system and the body’s organs, which may become distorted in many chronic diseases,” said Moncef Slaoui, at GSK, who will chair the board of Galvani Bioelectronics.
As well as stimulating or inhibiting nerve signals, such devices could in theory also monitor natural nerve signal traffic, and act when something goes wrong.
Devices that modify neural circuits do already exist. Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration approved a device that blocks signals along the vagus nerve to treat obesity. Electrodes in the brain have been used in efforts to relieve multiple conditions, including epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and depression.
But GSK hopes to develop more precise implants. “In 10 years’ time, I think it’s very realistic to imagine that if you have type 2 diabetes, you could go to your specialist to have bioelectronic medical treatment,” said Kris Famm of GSK, who will be president of the new company. “You’d be sent to a surgeon to have keyhole surgery to implant the device, and then go back to the specialist to have it programmed.”
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