On Monday morning, GlaxoSmithKline and Verily Life Sciences, which is owned by Google’s parent, Alphabet, formed a new company that will fight diseases by targeting electrical signals in the body. The companies will collectively invest $715 million in the gambit, which will be called Galvani Bioelectronics, and they hope to win approval for their implantable devices several years from now. But a lot must happen first. We spoke with Moncef Slaoui, who heads Glaxo’s vaccine business and will chair the new entity, about his hopes for making devices that will act like medicines. “It’s not science fiction,” he tells us. “And it’s progressing quite well.” This is an edited version of our conversation.
Pharmalot: So this is an ambitious project, but it’s not exactly about pharmaceuticals, is it? And you work for a drug maker. Where did the initiative come from?
Slaoui: Well, I became head of R&D (at Glaxo) in 2006 and my mission was to turn around the productivity, which was lagging. And I undertook a deep reorganization and by 2011, we had the early signs that we made a significant turnaround and productivity would go up. But in 2011, early 2012, we realized it took five to six years to turn around R&D asked ourselves whether it will wane away and if the way we discover drugs will it be sustainable in long run. … You know, the way we ensure a drug works is that it has a unique structure to interact with a specific target.
Pharmalot: Why bioelectronics?
Slaoui: We wondered if there are other modalities that we can use to engage the body and change it. So three years ago, I put a small team together — three from outside and three from inside the company — to explore what else we can use. We honed in on electrical signals, because that’s what the nervous system uses to regulate most functions in our body. That’s how information is translated from the brain to the organs — electrical impulses travel along the neurons. So we started to research this concept and scouted the world for people who working on this. … And we realized we needed to integrate sciences that were not working together — not just biologists and chemists, but also nanotechnologies experts in wireless technology, powering. … We think we have a new way to develop and discover medical interventions. We believe it can be a whole new industry, a little bit like in the 1800s, when chemical companies working on paint realized they could use their expertise to develop pharmaceuticals.
Pharmalot: And why did you choose this partner?
Slaoui: After we put together that small team, we started to work with a large network or 50 academic centers, the NIH, and DARPA to test the concept, since bioelectronic medicines require different sciences and electronics and data analytics, which are things we don’t know at GSK. And we realized very quickly that we need to find a partner to create the hardware, the device. We contacted most of the large companies with technologies and most were interested, but at the same time, they were concerned about the complexity of transplanting their devices into the human body and the complexities that regulators would create around that. … But we were incredibly aligned on the vision — the integration between technology and biology to create new therapeutics.
Pharmalot: And how long is this expected to take?
Slaoui: Actually, we’ve already accomplished a lot over the past three years. Besides the collaborations with the academic centers, we also work with small companies. We started a $50 million venture capital fund devoted to bioelectronics. … In the process, we have shown in animal models that stimulating or blocking nerve signals at the level of the organ can have a therapeutic benefit. So the mission of the new company within the next three years is to take three of these disease models — metabolic, inflammatory, and endocrine disorders — from the preclinical proof of principal concept to a clinical proof of principle concept. And in the next 18 months, we plan to start clinical trials with a prototype device to establish clinical proof of concept. And hopefully we will have that in the next three years. Once we do, all resources will be devoted to making the first commercial version of a bioelectronic medicine. And we hope to have approval and be in the marketplace in the next seven to 10 years. It’s not science fiction. And it’s progressing quite well.
Pharmalot: You certainly have a lot of challenges, right?
Slaoui: Clearly, it’s a high-risk endeavor, but it has a strong base in terms of clinical demonstrations of the concept. The first objective is now to establish if it works in a disease state. … But among the challenges, not necessarily in any order, a device needs to be the size of a grain of rice and have a lot of computing capability. This is an engineering challenge, but it’s being addressed. We also need to provide power to such a device and wirelessly transmitting power across the body mass is a technical challenge, and we’re working on that, as well. And it has to exchange data. And the material to be used in the device needs to be designed in such a way that it’s not rejected by the body and doesn’t harm the nerve. Then there’s the surgical procedure to implant the device on the nerve.
Pharmalot: Let’s talk for a minute about the structure.
Slaoui: The new company is owned 55 percent by GSK and 45 percent by Verily. So the ($715 million) investment is apportioned that way. I’m the chairman of the board of the new company. I believe you know that I’m going to retire from GSK in June 2017, but will remain with Galvani. … We’ll have about 30 employees — scientists and engineers. And we’ll contract some of the key work with Verily; about 100 of their engineers will be dedicated to creating the first-generation device. And we’ll continue partnerships with about 50 collaborators.
Pharmalot: None of this sounds cheap. How do you envision this will be paid for, given concerns about health care costs?
Slaoui: We do think about this already. Bioelectronic medicines hold the potential to be almost equivalent to a cure. … It will be a device implanted for the rest of your life, which means it will be a one-time intervention. … So how do you price it? I think the appropriate and responsible thing to do is price interventions like this so the cost is spread over time — a pay-for-performance approach. I could imagine patients or payers would pay a fee on a monthly or yearly basis, as long as they receive the clinical benefits from the device, so that the charge to the health care system isn’t a huge peak (in cost) that happens at once, which we saw happen with other health care interventions.