GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Google’s parent company Alphabet are joining forces on a new venture focused on providing revolutionary solutions to treat diseases by targeting electrical signals in the body. The technology has been coined as bioelectronics.

Verily, Google’s life sciences unit, and Britain’s biggest drug manufacturer will together contribute $715 million (540 million British pounds) over a period of seven years to Galvani Bioelectronics, which will be the name of the joint venture, named after Luigi Aloisio Galvani, an 18th century Italian scientist, physician and philosopher, who was one of the first to explore the field of bioelectricity. The decision was announced on Monday.

The company will have 55% shares owned by GSK and 45% by Verily, with the headquarters at GSK’s Stevenage Research Center, north of London, with a second research hub in south San Francisco. Galvani will develop miniaturized, implantable devices that can modify electrical nerve signals. The aim is to regulate irregular or altered impulses that occur in many illnesses such as sleep apnea and hypertension.

GSK believes chronic conditions such as diabetes, arthritis and asthma could be treated using these tiny devices, which consist of an electronic collar that wraps around nerves. Initial work will comprise of establishing clinical proof of such diseases, and in the process creating associated miniaturized bioelectronic devices.

GSK believes chronic conditions such as diabetes, arthritis and asthma could be treated using these tiny devices, which consist of an electronic collar that wraps around nerves. Kris Famm, GSK’s head of bioelectronics research and president of Galvani, said the first bioelectronic medicines using these implants to stimulate nerves could be submitted for regulatory approval around 2023. So there’s still a long way to go, but hopefully by then there will be a lot of research into this lucrative field and through several rounds of trial and error, the implants can be refined.

Famm told Reuters, “We have had really promising results in animal tests, where we’ve shown we can address some chronic diseases with this mechanism, and now we are bringing that work into the clinic.”

Famm said the first breed of implants released in the market would be around the size of a medical pill but the aim is to eventually make them as small or smaller than a grain of rice, using the latest advances in nanotechnology. Patients will be treated with keyhole surgery, surgery that is minimally invasive and is done further away from the target area. The goal is that bioelectronic medicine could provide a one-off treatment, possibly lasting decades. Major challenges include making the devices power efficient so that they perform reliably deep inside the body. The idea of treating serious diseases with electrical impulses is not completely new.

Electrical devices have been used to treat diseases for years, like pacemakers, with a more recent example being that of deep brain stimulations for diabetes treatment. Galvani is looking to innovate standard route of treatments, by taking electrical interventions to the micro level, using tiny implants to coax insulin from cells to treat diabetes, or correct muscle imbalances in lung diseases.

This is not the first time that a major tech company collaborated to treat a major disease. The American Diabetes Association and IBM Watson Health has announced on 12 June a continuing collaboration to amalgamate their forces to fight diabetes. This joint effort will combine the efforts to better manage and treat diabetes using the processing power of Watson supercomputer and the Association’s extensive clinical and research data.

Verily worked with Novartis earlier to develop a contact lens that could measure blood glucose levels by analyzing the wearer’s tears, in an attempt to better detect diabetes.

Challenges Facing Bioelectronics

Bioelectronics combines the fields of electronic technology with biological sciences. It’s one of the rising trends in health technology. Bioelectronics focuses on precise detection and modulation of electrical signals in the central nervous system, more specifically focused on the peripheral nervous system, which includes nerves outside the brain and spinal cord, since they are more involved in controlling chronic diseases and because small number of fibers per nerve facilitates easier modulation. The goal of bioelectronic devices is to be so minute that they can be effectively attached to any nerve in the body.

These devices when alter the electric signals of the nerves can create a therapeutic effect. This therapeutic effect can be improved if the devices are enhanced enough to record neural electrical activity and physiological parameters, analyze the data in real time and alter the neural signals accordingly.

For the field of bioelectronics to achieve these high standards of scientific prowess, a solid research foundation needs to be set up that will dictate the goals of this emerging field over the coming years.

One major challenge is the detailed biological mapping of the human nervous system including detailed mapping and recording for data analysis of major organs such as the heart, liver and kidneys. Furthermore, detailed investigation of variables that affect the nerve signals of such organs, for example, blood pressure and cytokine levels, will be crucial for the success of such an ambitious field as bioelectronics.

There has to be significant scientific advancement in imaging technologies including ultrasonic and tomography techniques for non-invasive recording and modulation. Neural interfacing technology provides the basis for mapping neural signals and bioelectronics medicines, but they have to be miniaturized to monitor nerves efficiently. There is also a need for development of electronics that incorporate high-bandwidth wireless data transfer, power management and signal processing geared towards animal test subjects.

The biggest challenge however lies in establishing the feasibility of this method of treatment. A key number of experiments need to be performed to check which nerve circuits have influence over a disease in an animal test subject.

Firstly, the neural signals and biomarker patterns need to be explored for correlation in a disease’s progression. Secondly, nerve circuits need to be tested for a possible impact on an established disease, by blocking and stimulating neural activity. Lastly, an effective course of treatment needs to be established by fine tuning the details of the experiments, for example, to discover the best location of attaching the device to the nerve, potential immune response, adverse neural reactions etc.

Once scientists keep in mind these areas of investigations and potential for errors and associated risks, the field of bioelectronics can bring significant contribution to the field of precision medicine and curing diseases.