by Matthew Arnold, Principal Analyst

If you missed last week's Times Magazine piece on the emerging field of bioelectronics and GSK's (modest) bet on it, you should go read it because it's a great read, full of whiz-bang sci-fi-sounding stuff that will make you feel excited about the future of medicine again. The short version is that there's this startup called SetPoint that's working on using electrical stimulation to talk to the nervous system to tell it, in RA patients, to shut down production of inflammation-causing TNF, for example. Early results from clinical trials on humans are looking promising.

Bioelectronics is new enough that most large pharma analysts on Wall Street probably haven't heard of it, but it's got an influential proponent in GSK R&D chief Moncef Slaoui:

As Slaoui saw it, SetPoint's stimulator was a primitive forerunner to a device that reads your electrical impulses and sees when something is wrong, then corrects what needs correcting.

In 2006, Slaoui continued, when I became chairman of R. & D., R. & D. was a liability to this company. We were spending lots of money and not producing new molecules for new medicines. I had to acknowledge that the current way of doing R. & D. wasn't likely to be successful.

Pharma's been in a strange place for the past decade or so, seemingly stuck in the trough of the innovation cycle, with pipelines failing to replenish the revenues lost as yesterday's blockbusters move off-patent. The industry keeps shrinking, and you hear people moan about how all the low-hanging fruit has been picked. And yet, most large pharmas are sitting on huge stockpiles of cash, and they're placing bets on some intriguing technology. The reporter told a Times blog that GSK's interest was what piqued his curiosity:

Big Pharma is very conservative in business, in technology. They have to be. It is the nature of their business. To see them take an interest in a very science-fictiony or way-out project made me think, Huh, there is more to this than I know.

GSK has posted some clips of Slaoui and Kris Famm, head of the company's bioelectronics R&D unit, talking about the therapy on their More Than Medicine blog.

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