GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the UK’s biggest drug producer, and American multinational Alphabet Inc. (the largest subsidiary of which is Google) have teamed up to create bioelectronic medicines, hailed by many as disease treatment of the future. These medicines bring together several scientific disciplines in order to create nerve-stimulating technologies in order to tackle the underlying, molecular causes of disease.
The joint venture is going by the name of Galvani Electronics, which will see investment to the tune of £540m over seven years if research efforts show promising results. Currently, GSK is dominating the field of bioelectronic medicine. With help from Alphabet Inc. they are hoping to create nanobots the size of a grain of rice that can be attached directly onto nerves to treat various diseases.
These miniature machines will create electric impulses to alter nerve signals, so that, in an asthma sufferer, for example, airways could be loosened up. Asthma is a condition in which the airways (the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs) become narrower due to a sensitive reaction to a wide range of ‘triggers’. There is currently no cure for asthma. Researchers are also hoping to tackle a number of diseases through this technology, such as Chron’s disease, by reducing inflammation.
GKS’s chairman of global vaccines Monsef Slaoui, who will chair the board of the new company, said:
"Many of the processes of the human body are controlled by electrical signals firing between the nervous system and the body’s organs, which may become distorted in many chronic diseases. Bioelectronic medicine’s vision is to employ the latest advances in biology and technology to interpret this electrical conversation and to correct the irregular patterns found in disease states…"
Many, of course, are reacting to this new technology with hope and optimism. The UK’s business and energy secretary, Greg Clark, stated:
"This latest investment from Glaxo is yet another significant victory for UK business and our global leadership in life sciences. This venture…demonstrates the global appeal of our scientific expertise that is helping attract investment, grow the economy and pioneer technologies that could improve millions of lives."
It is worth highlighting here the comments about this being a victory for business, attracting investment and growing the economy. Let’s not forget that these are two of the world’s largest corporations who will end up pricing this futuristic technology for profit. This will determine who can afford life-saving treatment and who cannot. The development of this technology, then, which is being monopolised, creates a host of ethical issues and potential for misuse.
GSK has seen a big fall in second-quarter earnings (£152m compared to £986m in the same period last year), due to pressure from competitor drug producers. It is important to keep this loss of profits in mind when GSK announces it’s teaming up with a Google parent company for a new business venture. Clark is enthusiastic about this project from a business perspective, first and foremost, so it clearly has implications that go well beyond improving people’s quality of life.