Despite the fact that diabetes affects almost one in 10 adults around the world, generic pharmaceutical manufacturers have yet to produce a non-branded form of insulin. As a result, supplies of the hormone remain somewhat expensive, forcing diabetes sufferers to spend around 2.3 times more on medical costs than those who do not have the condition. However, a team of biohackers at Oakland’s Counter Culture Labs are now attempting to develop an open-source protocol for the production of insulin, which they hope will then be used by others to create generic insulin.
The role of insulin in the human body is to regulate the movement of glucose from the blood and into cells, where it is broken down. Diabetes interrupts this process, since sufferers either can’t produce enough insulin or their immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells, which is why the hormone must be delivered by injection. Without it, diabetics cannot control their blood sugar levels and risk going dangerously high or low, which can have fatal effects.
Previously, bovine or pig insulin was used to treat the condition, since these forms are almost identical to the human version of the hormone. However, since the late 1970s, biotechnology firms have been genetically modifying E. coli cells to make them produce insulin. Not only does this yield superior results, but it is also a much cheaper option since the cells are easily modified and rapidly replicate.
However, all of these processes are currently patented, and generic labs are unwilling to develop their own forms of insulin since the process for doing so is relatively complex. For this reason, scientists at the California-based company now intend to find a non-patented process for creating insulin from E. coli. Once this is achieved, they plan to make their protocol publicly available, in the hope that pharmaceutical companies will use it to produce generic insulin, which can then be sold for much cheaper prices than the current branded versions.
To do so, they have started a crowdfunding campaign, with a target of raising $12,000 (£7,830) in 15 days. With this, they expect to be able to produce insulin from E. coli that is not fit for human use. They will then spend the next 12 months refining this product in order to reach an acceptable standard of insulin for treating diabetes sufferers.
Even when this is achieved, companies intending to adopt the protocol are likely to face a number of obstacles, since obtaining approval from the Food and Drug Administration for the use of biosimilar drugs (drugs that resemble naturally occurring substances) can be complicated. However, if these barriers can be overcome, the Counter Culture Labs team hope that their work can enable some of the world’s poorest communities to access insulin for the first time.
[H/T: Popular Science]