By Ben Hirschler
LONDON, April 10 (Reuters) - GlaxoSmithKline, Britain's biggest drugmaker, is placing a small but important bet on a new way of treating diseases by targeting electrical signals in the body.
The company said on Wednesday it would offer a $1 million prize to stimulate innovation in the field, as well as funding up to 40 researchers working in external laboratories.
The initiative is a long-term gamble on the promise of a new kind of medicine, using electrical impulses rather than the chemicals or biological molecules found in today's drugs.
GSK believes it is ahead of rivals in the emerging area and, given the early-stage nature of the work, the drugmaker aims to play a coordinating role in bringing researchers together.
The new field of "electroceuticals" has also grabbed the attention of a number of academic research groups which are already mapping neural circuits in animals and humans, and working on potential interventions for testing in clinical trials.
"At GlaxoSmithKline and in academia, we are confident that this field will deliver real medicines, and we are mobilising resources for this journey," GSK head of bioelectronics research Kristoffer Famm and colleagues wrote in the journal Nature.
Academic centres involved in the research effort include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania and the Feinstein Institute of Medical Research.
The idea is to use the electrical impulses that form the "language" of the body's nervous system to address a range of diseases, from high blood pressure to breathing problems and, eventually, brain disorders.
Moncef Slaoui, chairman of GSK research and development, said bioelectronics was set to be the next big wave in medicine, comparable to the rise in biological therapies over the past 15 years triggered by advances in biotechnology.
"This is our vision for the next 10 to 20 years," he told Reuters. "In the future, a big chunk of R&D will be doing bioelectronics."
The concept is not completely new. Large-scale electrical devices have been used for years as heart pacemakers and, more recently, electrical stimulation has been applied to treat Parkinson's disease, severe depression and some neurological disorders, as well as to improve bladder control.
St. Jude Medical, for example, on Wednesday won European approval for a brain implant to treat an incurable neurological condition called dystonia, while nerve-deadening devices have also been shown to reduce stubbornly high blood pressure.
But in future GSK wants to apply electrical interventions at the micro level by targeting specific cells within neural circuits. That could lead to novel nanoscale implants to coax insulin from cells to treat diabetes or correct muscle imbalances in lung diseases or regulate food intake in obesity.
The approach could also one day be used to treat disorders of the brain itself - assuming scientists can decipher the hugely complex neural circuitry involved.
Exploiting the potential of the new field will involve combining skills from biology, computing, material science and nanotechnology, including devising new kinds of miniature power sources.
It is ambitious work but there have been impressive strides in bringing together biology and computers recently, such the case of a 58-year-old paralysed woman who last year used an experimental brain-computer interface to move a robotic arm by thought alone.
GSK will host a global forum in December to bring research leaders together and collectively identify one key hurdle in the field. The $1 million prize will go to the research group able to overcome that hurdle.