Google’s life science spinoff, Verily, is jumping into a new field: miniaturizing devices that can modify the electrical signals transmitted by nerves throughout the body, with the goal of treating a wide variety of illnesses.
Verily announced Monday morning that it’s teaming up with pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline on a joint venture dubbed Galvani Bioelectronics. The two companies have pledged to invest a combined total of more than $700 million in the venture over the next seven years.
GSK will hold a 55 percent equity interest and Verily will own the rest.
Electroceuticals have been a hot field of late — so hot that at one scientific confab, researchers jokingly added “world peace” to the list of cures the mini electrical devices should bring about. The dream is to use electrical devices, either implanted or placed on the skin, to target specific organs quite precisely, and without the side effects of drugs. Projects in the works aim to treat diseases ranging from obesity to heart failure to incontinence.
GSK has been a leader in the field, investing about $50 million in a bioelectronics fund in just the past four years. Other heavy hitters have jumped in as well, including the Pentagon, which has created an $80 million ElectRx initiative through its futuristic DARPA research arm, and the National Institutes of Health, which has dedicated nearly $250 million to a project it calls SPARC (for Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions).
But the optimism about electroceuticals is based on a small number of studies with relatively few patients. Researchers still don’t fully understand the body’s electrical pathways, or know precisely how to manipulate those currents to treat diseases.
Verily and GSK will focus on using electrical impulses to treat inflammatory, metabolic, and endocrine disorders, including type 2 diabetes.
Their joint venture — named after an 18th-century Italian scientist who first explored the field of bioelectricity (by making a frog’s leg twitch when he touched its sciatic nerve with metal) — will be based in the UK, with another research facility at Verily’s new hub in south San Francisco.
Galvini will be led by Kris Famm, GSK’s vice president of bioelectronics. Andrew Conrad, Verily’s volatile CEO, will sit on the board.
Brian Otis, Verily’s chief technology officer, said in a statement that the partnership will let Verily deploy “our focused expertise in low power, miniaturized therapeutics and our data analytics engine.”
But it’s unclear how far Verily has gotten in those fields.
Conrad promised to deliver a working prototype of a Verily’s signature device, a Star Trek-style “Tricorder” that would detect early signs of cancer from nanoparticles floating in a patient’s bloodstream, more than two years ago. It hasn’t yet been unveiled. In June, Verily called it a “very early stage” project that still faced “unsolved technical challenges.”
Verily has also been working with Alcon, a division of Novartis, on a contact lens that can sense glucose levels in tears and thus help diabetics manage their insulin levels, but a former manager told STAT it was little more than “slideware” — which looks great on PowerPoint slides but has not worked in the lab.
The company also has a partnership with Johnson & Johnson to work on robotic surgery.
STAT reported this spring that Verily has been losing top talent due in part to the volatility of CEO Conrad.