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Google and GSK explore medical frontier

GlaxoSmithKline has teamed up with Verily Life Sciences, a division of Google’s parent company Alphabet, to found a brand new company; Galvani Bioelectronics. The UK-based joint venture will focus on developing treatments for chronic illnesses such as asthma and diabetes, through the development of tiny bioelectronic implants.

The new company is named after 18th century scientist Luigi Aloisio Galvani, who pioneered the field of bioelectronics and gained renown for his experiment in which he used electricity to cause dead frog legs to twitch and kick as if alive. While that particular breakthrough took place over 200 years ago, bioelectronic medicine remains a relatively new field of study.


“This is an ambitious collaboration allowing GSK and Verily to combine forces and have a huge impact on an emerging field,” says Verily’s CTO, Brian Otis. “Bioelectronic medicine is a new area of therapeutic exploration, and we know that success will require the confluence of deep disease biology expertise and new highly miniaturised technologies.”

It is the hope of the Galvani team (split between Stevenage and San Francisco) that strides in this area will revolutionise the treatment and management of inflammatory, metabolic and endocrine illnesses. Bioelectronic devices are predicted to be similar in size to a small pill or grain of rice, and will be implanted via keyhole surgery. At present, challenges include ensuring they can be battery-powered and will continue to function within the body for years at a time.

“The smaller the devices the less they will need to be charged and the more precise they are, and the more attractive this will be as an intervention,” says Kristoffer Famm, Head of Bioelectronics at GSK. “Hopefully in 10 years there will be a treatment option where your doctor will say ‘why don’t you go for a bioelectronics?’ and a surgeon will do a little procedure and it will help the organ to do what it should be doing.”

GSK first began considering the potential of bioelectronic technologies back in 2013, when Famm published a paper outlining the applications of “electroceuticals”.

Galvani is the latest in a series of partnerships undertaken by Alphabet in MedTech. Last year, they launched Verb Surgical Inc., an innovation space for next generation robotic and medical devices, in conjunction with Johnson & Johnson. Additionally, Verily is currently working on a smart contact lens with Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, which will help monitor diabetes through an in-built glucose sensor.

GSK has committed investment of £275 million to its UK operations, maintaining that it is still an “attractive” place to do business following the result of the EU Referendum.

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