Drug Development

UPDATED: Google’s Verily and GlaxoSmithKline hatch a $713M plan to spark a biorevolution

Global pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline is teaming up with Google’s life sciences venture Verily, channeling its four-year effort to create new nanotech-based bioelectronic therapeutics into a startup called Galvani Bioelectronics, with joint plans to invest $713 million into the venture over the next seven years.

GSK's Chariman of Vaccines, Moncef Slaoui

GSK’s Chairman of Vaccines, Moncef Slaoui

GSK’s Moncef Slaoui has billed this effort as a revolutionary attempt to break out of the traditional mode of therapeutic development, rethinking the science and technology of drug R&D to create a completely new development field in electroceuticals, which will now be focused on inflammatory, metabolic and endocrine disorders, including type 2 diabetes. And now Verily Life Sciences, formerly Google Life Sciences which operates under the new Alphabet banner, is making a big biotech bet that it can live up to its mission to transform medicine by partnering with GSK.

Galvani will be based in the UK biotech hub in Stevenage, with another research center at Verily’s campus in South San Francisco. They’ll get started with a staff of 30 and GSK’s startup endeavors to date. Glaxo will own 55% of the company, with Verily taking the rest. Slaoui has been tapped to chair the new company and shepherd one of his favorite projects.

They’re not thinking small. And they aren’t stopping at 30. A spokesperson for Verily offered Endpoints this insight on the new jobs that are expected to be created.

“In addition to the 30 initial FTEs, Galvani will fund and integrate – both through strategic collaborations with the two parent companies and with others – a broad range of other collaborations in academia and with R&D companies, building on the successful model we’ve developed in GSK Bioelectronics over three years. It will involve approximately 100 FTEs (full time equivalents) at Verily and about 100 FTEs across the spectrum of other partnerships. By effectively tying such a network of experts together, we believe we can rapidly accelerate the development of bioelectronic medicines.”

“This is an ambitious collaboration allowing GSK and Verily to combine forces and have a huge impact on an emerging field,” said Verily Chief Technology Officer 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.

Verily’s big agenda is to harness new life science technology in search of a multitude of new ways to improve human health and rev up a longer life without the many afflictions that drag people down the longer they live.

In GlaxoSmithKline’s case, they started out with specific diseases in mind, looking to direct nerve stimulators that could, for example, influence rheumatoid arthritis. The company set up a special $50 million fund to help jumpstart a small group of biotechs specializing in electroceuticals. A $1 million science prize was set up to help gin up some excitement. And collaborations followed with other companies in the field. More partnering is expected as the new company gets up and running.

GSK said earlier this year that it plans to be in the clinic with its first programs in 2017.

A couple of years ago, GSK’s Slaoui, who now runs the vaccines group for GSK, had this to say in an interview with The China Post:

(W)e realized that when we use chemical structure or recombinant protein as a medicine, what we use in fact are the structures of these medicines to interact with the structure of a receptor or protein in our body … Our body uses structure to communicate with biology, but it also uses electrical impulses which go through our nerves. So we asked the question: ‘Can we use electrical impulses to modify the way organs function?’”

“We have evidence that our body can read electrical messages we give it. This has created a new vision to design nano-technological devices that will be able to read the electrical signals that are transmitting in our nerves, and hopefully (we will) be able to identify abnormal signals … and correct it by giving it a different signal.”

To test that concept, investigators found that the right electronic pulses could spur the pancreas to produce insulin, to treat diabetes. And another preclinical test worked on blood pressure.

Creating a new modality for therapeutic development, though, presents huge and expensive hurdles, especially when you’re talking about mass ailments like diabetes and heart disease. Regulators put up high bars on safety that most biotechs could never hope to clear with a small, limited research budget.

Verily and Google, though, are a whole different matter.

Google has the kind of deep pockets that most company execs can only dream about. That’s also helping fund Calico, which has stealthily moved ahead on a number of programs aimed at healthy longevity.

STAT has been taking some roundhouse swings at Verily, claiming that its top development programs are more science fiction than potential near-term tools for the life sciences market.

GSK doesn’t appear to be bothered by that, though.

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John Carroll, Editor and Co-Founder

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