GlaxoSmithKline is linking up with three US academic centres to discover medicines that use electrical impulses to regulate the body's organs and functions.

The initiative, which was unveiled in the journal Nature, involves GSK, the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The partners note that "nearly all organs and functions in the body are regulated through circuits of neurons that communicate through electrical impulses".

There already exist devices that use electrical impulses to treat disease (such as pacemakers, defibrillators, deep-brain stimulation), but these  do not target specific cells in the body. The Feinstein Institute noted that researchers are working on devices that control action potentials in individual neurons, "a critical step in developing technologies to use neural circuits to control specific cells".

It may be possible to intervene in a broad spectrum of diseases, notably in the inflammatory and autoimmune area because these conditions can be controlled by neurons. The partners will dedicate resources with the aim to discover electrical impulse medical treatment, or 'electroceuticals' and GSK is offering a $1 million prize to reward innovation in the field, as well as funding up to 40 researchers working in around 20 laboratories.

GSK head of bioelectronics research Kristoffer Famm and colleagues wrote in Nature that "we are confident that this field will deliver real medicines, and we are mobilising resources for this journey". Moncef Slaoui, the drug major's R&D chief, told Reuters that bioelectronics could represent the next big wave in medicine, comparable to the rise in biologics, adding that "this is our vision for the next 10 to 20 years. In the future, a big chunk of R&D will be doing bioelectronics".

Kevin Tracey, president of the Feinstein Institute, said "we are focused on developing implantable electrical devices as treatments for disease" and it  is likely that "miniaturised, computerised technologies that target neurons will someday replace existing drugs". He added that "this has the potential to revolutionise how we think about helping patients".