GlaxoSmithKline treated the first patient with a bioelectronic implant that changes nerve signals to organs in the body’s nucleus, as part of a joint venture to treat chronic diseases with Google’s sister company Verily.
The British drugmaker and American Life Sciences Company established Galvani Bioelectronics in 2016 to create implants that can precisely target nerves to specific organs and stay within a patient for the rest of their lives.
A Scottish patient was the first to receive an implant as part of two early-stage trials to treat rheumatoid arthritis in the UK and US. In keyhole surgery, which lasted just under an hour, a small device was inserted into the upper body via the navel.
The device is attached to the inside of the body wall, where it can be controlled wirelessly by an application.
It treats rheumatoid arthritis by stimulating a nerve to the spleen to reprogram immune cells as they circulate through the organ. The goal is to switch the cells from a state where they cause inflammation to one where they resolve it. It can reduce the inflammation and pain in the joints that are characteristic of the disease.
René van der Merwe, Galvani’s chief medical officer, said many rheumatoid arthritis patients do not respond well to existing drugs. “I think there is a great unmet need for patients. “There are so many treatments out there, very few of them achieve remission or a very low disease state,” she said.
Kristoffer Famm, president of Galvani, which has been working on bioelectronics at GSK since 2013, said the implantation of the device in the first patient was a “major milestone”.
If it works well, Famm said, “it’s feasible that it could be on the market in four or five years.”
Scientists have long been intrigued by the possibility of the change of electric currents in the body to treat disease. Bioelectronics are already used in the brain for patients with Parkinson’s and epilepsy, and to stimulate nerves in the spinal cord to treat pain.
But this is the first time the technique has been used to target a visceral organ – in the main body cavity – using technology that can be adapted to treat other conditions.
“The Galvani bio-electronics platform may bring a new way to shift the balance of disease to healthy conditions in a range of immune-mediated and other diseases,” Famm said.