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AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
Nerve center.
DISRUPT BRAINWAVES

Pharma and tech giants are teaming up to design devices that can hack your body’s electrical signals

By Akshat Rathi

Electrical signals from the brain govern much of what goes on in the human body. Pharma and tech giants are spending big money to figure out how to hack these signals, a burgeoning field known as “bioelectronics.”

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Verily Life Sciences, an Alphabet subsidiary, are investing more than $700 million over seven years to create a new company, Galvani Bioelectronics. The firm, 55% owned by GSK, will have one lab in Stevenage, UK and another in San Francisco. The company will initially employ 30 scientists, engineers, and clinicians.

Ever since we began making electronics small enough to put inside the human body, scientists have been dreaming up potential applications for healthcare, like pacemakers. But it is only recently that batteries have become small enough, software sophisticated enough, and materials compatible enough with human anatomy to make varied and widespread applications a reality.

GSK laid out its bioelectronics vision in an article in Nature in 2013. Their target is the peripheral nervous system, which consists of nerves that extend from the spinal cord to every corner of the body. Applications to treat hypertension and sleep apnea using electrical signals have already been established.

Verily Life Sciences used to be known as Google Life Sciences, but became part of Alphabet when Google restructured in 2015. It has previously made strides in wearable electronics, starting with a contact lens for diabetics.

Combining forces makes sense for both firms. GSK bring its know-how of the body and Verily its know-how of technology. Their new joint venture is named after the Italian scientist Luigi Aloisio Galvani, who in the 18th century was the first to study body’s electrical signals. They hope to bring devices to market within a decade.

Despite recent progress, the field of bioelectronics faces daunting challenges. Devices need not just be incredibly small and compatible with the body, but also must deliver very precise electrical disruptions to treat diseases. This is why, starting in 2014, GSK set out to create a more detailed map of the body’s electrical circuitry and develop interfaces that could be used to hack it.

“If successful, this approach offers the potential for a new therapeutic modality alongside traditional medicines and vaccines,” said GSK’s bioelectronics champion, Moncef Slaoui. The devices could treat chronic diseases like arthritis, diabetes, and asthma. Crucially, the new company also promises to provide its parents with a new source of income that they need to diversify their revenues.

Akshat Rathi
Senior reporter
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