Magazine Article | September 1, 2016

Where Will The Next Biopharma Breakthrough Come From?

Source: Life Science Leader

By Rob Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @RfwrightLSL

Ever heard of the company Galvani Bioelectronics? The name probably sounds familiar because the company was recently the subject of nearly every news media outlet, including the Wall Street Journal. Even more impressive is that while Galvani Bioelectronics was dominating headlines, it was doing so despite (as of this writing) it not owning a website and having only one employee and board member. How is this possible? Simple. Galvani Bioelectronics is the outcome of GSK and Google parent, Alphabet, teaming up to develop bioelectronics medicines. Kris Famm, former head of bioelectronics research at GSK, will serve as president of this new $700 million venture, while Andrew Conrad, CEO of Verily Life Sciences (formerly Google Life Sciences), will sit on its board. (Sorry Boston, despite your city being the current bastion for biopharma R&D, for the time being at least, Galvani will be based at GSK’s research center in Stevenage in the U.K. So much for Brexit being biopharma’s and GSK’s downfall!)

To my understanding, Galvani isn’t planning on taking the same approach as Otsuka (i.e., submitted the first digital medicine new drug application to the FDA in the form of an Abilify tablet being outfitted with a Proteus ingestible sensor), but instead intends to develop treatments that use miniature implanted electronic devices to modify how electrical impulses are transmitted around the human nervous system. I often have argued that for biopharmaceutical companies to go beyond being just cutting edge (see page 20 of our August 2016 issue), they need to start looking for breakthroughs of the nontraditional biopharma variety (i.e., therapeutics not based purely on drugs). Here we see a Big Pharma doing just that. However, is what GSK is doing really all that new? After all, there have been other biopharmas that have partnered with high-tech giants (e.g., Novartis and Google, Teva and IBM Watson). Further, it was over four years ago that I wrote about GSK’s Seekers of Disruptive Innovation and described how John Baldoni (SVP of platform technology and science at GSK) came up with the idea generation team (i.e., The Seekers) to not only create tipping points, but craft them sooner.

You may be wondering: Why all this talk about GSK? Even in this issue there are three separate GSK articles. What gives?

It all started when I was making my plans for this year’s BIO convention in San Francisco. One of my goals while attending was to interview as many big biopharma executives as possible, and GSK just happened to be very accommodating. But what made it a real win-win was getting the opportunity to explore, from a very high level, the details behind GSK’s mega-deal with Novartis that saw $20 billion worth of assets swapped. In this issue’s three-part series you will:

  • learn why GSK was willing to spend $4 billion on acquiring the Novartis vaccines business
  • understand that GSK’s $16 billion sale of marketed oncology assets did not signify its “Brexit” from cancer drug development
  • read a great story about the creation of reverse vaccinology and subsequent development of the first Meningitis B vaccines.

While it remains to be seen if what GSK and Verily have planned will eventually bear fruit, I applaud their willingness to push the boundaries of conventional thinking in seeking biopharma’s next breakthroughs.