By Ben Hirschler
LONDON (Reuters) - GlaxoSmithKline raised its bet on using electrical signals in the body to target diseases on Thursday with the launch of a $50 million strategic venture capital fund.
Britain's biggest drugmaker hopes to have the first medicine that effectively speaks the electrical "language" of the body ready for approval by the end of this decade.
GSK said the new fund's first investment would be a $5 million stake in SetPoint Medical, a California company working on implantable devices to treat inflammatory diseases.
In all, SetPoint has secured $27 million in fresh financing. Aside from GSK, it has also received cash from Boston Scientific, the venture capital arm of Covidien and existing investors.
As reported in April, GSK is also offering a $1 million prize to stimulate innovation in the new field, known variously as "bioelectronics" or "electroceuticals".
These initiatives represent a long-term gamble on the promise of a novel kind of medicine that uses electrical impulses rather than the chemicals or biological molecules found in today's drugs. GSK believes it is ahead of rivals in the area.
By tapping into electrical signals that form the language of the body's nervous system, scientists hope to address a range of diseases from high blood pressure to breathing problems and, eventually, brain disorders.
In the case of SetPoint, the research and development work is focused on new therapies for immune system disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease.
These autoimmune diseases are typically treated with immunosuppressant drugs, while SetPoint uses an implantable pulse generator to stimulate the vagus nerve, which runs from the head to the abdomen, producing a systemic anti-inflammatory effect.
The company presented positive results from a proof-of-concept clinical trial in rheumatoid arthritis last November, and believes its system could provide a more convenient and potentially safer alternative to drugs.
The idea of treating serious disease with electrical impulses is not completely new.
Large-scale electrical devices have been used for years as heart pacemakers and, more recently, deep brain stimulation has been applied to treat Parkinson's disease, severe depression and certain neurological movement disorders.
In future, however, the aim is to apply electrical interventions at the micro level by targeting specific cells within neural circuits. That could also lead to tiny implants to coax insulin from cells to treat diabetes or correct muscle imbalances in lung diseases or to regulate food intake in obesity.
GSK's new Action Potential Venture Capital fund will be based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
(Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Jane Merriman)