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Biotech Medicine Technology

The Biohacking Movement and Open Source Insulin 66

szczys writes: Since early last century, insulin has been produced from the pancreas of animals. In the late 1970s we figured out how to synthesize insulin using bacteria or yeast. As the biohacking movement has grown, insulin production has been a common target, but for some reason we're not there yet. Dan Maloney looked into the backstory (including the amazing story of the Saxl family who produced life-saving insulin during WWII) and a new startup that is trying to get Biohackers working on the problem. Update: 07/30 21:56 GMT by T : That's WWII above, not WWI; mea culpa.
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The Biohacking Movement and Open Source Insulin

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  • Interesting idea...

    How about open-source beer? Now there's a really great.. Oh wait! It's been done! [freebeer.org]
    • by Paco103 ( 758133 )

      Well great, now when someone says "Free as in Beer" I'll still wonder what kind of free they mean.. . .

  • Is that what we're calling "genetic engineering" these days to keep the tin-hatters away?

    • You don't use tin hats in biology. You need to keep in tune with Gai's resonances. Tin foil hats are strictly for computer types.

    • by Sowelu ( 713889 )

      Engineering implies a corporate budget, hacking implies doing it in your garage.

      • Same thing that differentiates "engineer" with "maker".

        Engineer: gets paid to work on projects with huge tools worth multiple thousands of dollars.
        Maker: works on projects for fun with desktop tools worth a few hundreds of dollars.

    • Basically. The food religion says GMO is bad until one of them happens to need insulin and also happens to be allergic to "natural" cow insulin, then GMO produced humulin (secreted by a genetically modified e. coli bacterium to be chemically similar to human insulin) is a miracle.

      Which by the way, this particular GMO has been in use for 32 years now.

      • Basically. The food religion says GMO is bad until one of them happens to need insulin and also happens to be allergic to "natural" cow insulin, then GMO produced humulin (secreted by a genetically modified e. coli bacterium to be chemically similar to human insulin) is a miracle.

        We recently locally went through a very acrimonious ballot measure campaign where the food police wanted a complete ban on GMO production or products in our county. They couldn't understand that this would impact diabetics in a serious way, or that it would stop the local university from doing ANY research on GMO foods, or research using GMO products (like lab mice with special genes, etc.) As a major employer, the loss of grant money being spent for this research wouldn't cost any jobs, the people would j

      • The food religion says GMO is bad until one of them happens to need insulin and also happens to be allergic to "natural" cow insulin, then GMO produced humulin (secreted by a genetically modified e. coli bacterium to be chemically similar to human insulin) is a miracle.

        And because tomatoes are delicious, we should all go eat a whole bunch of Atropa belladonna.

        The GMO religion believes that every GMO is a good GMO. That no genetically modified organism can ever possibly hurt you, so you must not be allowed

        • The GMO religion believes that every GMO is a good GMO. That no genetically modified organism can ever possibly hurt you, so you must not be allowed to know which foods are from GMOs. They've never heard about NewLeaf Potatoes or LibertyLink Rice.

          I've never said it can never possibly hurt you. Heck, I think there's probably a likelihood that there will be some kind of problem some day. But what actual scientifically proven health problems from GMOs have ever happened?

          Labelling them is arguably a "warning"

          • Labelling them is arguably a "warning".

            And arguably, it's truth in advertising.

            There are labels of all sorts on food. There's a little "K" in a circle that means kosher and there's a symbol for Halal and there's labels that say "Grown in California" and "fresh" and "delicious". Those are not warnings.

            There is nutritional information, there's a list of ingredients. If consumers want it, why not a simple little symbol that shows the food was grown from GM organisms?

            Remember, it's the consumers that are pay

            • Nutritional information and list of ingredients are *government mandated*.

              If the customers "don't" get what they want, then buy the (likely overpriced) stuff labelled "GMO free" and live in your (current) placebo world that you're eating healthier stuff.

              • If the customers "don't" get what they want, then buy the (likely overpriced) stuff labelled "GMO free"

                I bet you didn't know that the GMO industry sued to prevent people from labeling their food "GMO free".

                Face it, they just don't want you to know what you're buying.

                Nutritional information and list of ingredients are *government mandated*.

                But the kosher and halal designations are not. Nor is the word "delicious" in big letters or any of the other words on the label. When I walk into the grocery, why doe

                • I bet you didn't know that the GMO industry sued to prevent people from labeling their food "GMO free".

                  But they didn't win, did they? If they didn't win, it's irrelevant.

                  I still don't see you providing any shred of evidence that there are proven human health concerns for GMOs.

                  • But they didn't win, did they? If they didn't win, it's irrelevant.

                    So, you think it's "irrelevant" that this sacred GMO industry that you worship sued to block other companies from labeling their food as "GMO free"? You are truly a zealot. It wasn't about them trying to "prevent FUD". It was about them trying to block the free speech of people who don't use their products. And this is the industry to which you're willing to hand over the keys to our food supply?

                    I still don't see you providing any shred

                • I bet you didn't know that the GMO industry sued to prevent people from labeling their food "GMO free".

                  And they apparently lost since I see such labels on products currently for sale.

                  When I walk into the grocery, why doesn't the sign above the corn say, "Roundup Corn 3 for $1"?

                  Ask the grocery. It's their sign. Maybe they don't want to needlessly scare ignorant people?

                  I want to know if the basic foodstuffs I buy are patented.

                  Because, of course, it makes one single bit of difference in the safety or taste of the product if it is covered by a patent or not. Sure.

                  Or is that also information I should not be allowed to have?

                  What other useless information should be mandated for food labels just because you want to know it? Isn't it good enough that any company that wants to create a market advantage for itself can do so

      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        One is modifying bacteria in a lab to produce a vital medication. The other is modifying plants growing out in the open to make them produce pesticides that they swear won't hurt us when we eat them.

  • Sounds Great (Score:4, Informative)

    by kwiecmmm ( 1527631 ) on Thursday July 30, 2015 @03:10PM (#50216907)

    As a type 1 diabetic I am all for this. Currently a vial (500 units) of insulin costs between $250 and $400 (before insurance). Since this was done originally in 1978, there shouldn't be a patent to worry about. And since diabetics need this to live, I really don't care too much about the profits of the drug manufacturer, when it probably costs them less than $5 to make a vial.

    • Re:Sounds Great (Score:5, Informative)

      by Andy Dodd ( 701 ) <atd7@co r n e l l . edu> on Thursday July 30, 2015 @03:19PM (#50216961) Homepage

      Um, no, a 1000 unit vial (10 mL of U-100) costs $25 for regular and NPH insulins. (If you're paying more than this, blame the pharmacy. This is one of the few cases where I root for Walmart - they've managed to get Novo onboard with selling Novolin R and N for $25/vial)

      Unless you're purchasing Lantus or Novolog/Humalog (which most diabetics including myself are), which are MUCH newer than 1978 and still have active patents. (Some of Lantus' are about to expire or recently expired, but Novartis played some legal games to manage to block generic Lantus from the market until late 2016...) Even after "generics" of the "designer" insulins launch, the FDA's rules on "biosimilars" are going to slow down this market. (IIRC, generic Lantus IS available in India at significantly reduced prices.)

      • Re: Sounds Great (Score:4, Interesting)

        by bill_mcgonigle ( 4333 ) * on Thursday July 30, 2015 @03:32PM (#50217093) Homepage Journal

        If anybody wants to spend 45 minutes reviewing the data on whether the FDA's current regulatory regime helps or hinders, this talk [youtu.be] is quite good.

      • Sorry I was in a hurry to type this, but I get two vials a month of Humalog. And that is what costs me that much money. And Humalog was first approved in 1996, so it should either have already ended its patent or be about to end its patent. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insulin_lispro

        I am pretty sure the drug company's have more than made their initial investment back from the creation of these types of insulin.

        I just want the ability that I lost, the ability to make my own insulin... so why not

      • by AJWM ( 19027 )

        There's a significant difference between the $25/vial Novolin R and N insulin and the $200+/vial stuff like Levemir (insulin detemir) or Lantus.

        The former are short-to-mid term acting insulins, they act quickly but wear off quickly, whereas the latter are longer lasting (but a bit slower to act). You're paying for the convenience of not having to check your glucose multiple times a day, and having to stick yourself maybe once a day instead of at every meal. (Well, okay, you're paying for the patents,

    • by Anonymous Coward

      From what I have heard, about $5 a vial for production cost is about right. As a fellow T1, I would be all on board for trying this out. It is absurdly stupid that animal insulin is no longer available in the US just because they can't charge as much for it. I would love to see CEOs of drug companies brought before court and tried for overcharging and exploiting diabetics.

      • by bws111 ( 1216812 )

        So, start a company that makes animal insulin. The patents are long gone, there's nothing stopping you.

    • Meanwhile, in a worldwide collapse due to war or an asteroid, Type 2s find themselves losing weight and the need for insulin. Their arteries clear, their blood pressure drops, their life expectancy skyrockets...to 60.

      • by AJWM ( 19027 )

        Meanwhile, in a worldwide collapse due to war or an asteroid, Type 2s find themselves losing weight and the need for insulin. Their arteries clear, their blood pressure drops, their life expectancy skyrockets...to 60.

        Once Type 2 kicks in, losing weight isn't going to magically reverse it, alas. It may well help with the other things, but I know some skinny (formerly obese, but not morbidly so) T2 diabetics. Lots of additional exercise might help, although if you're pushing 60 it gets harder to add muscl

  • not there yet (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 30, 2015 @03:22PM (#50216997)

    As the biohacking movement has grown, insulin production has been a common target, but for some reason we're not there yet

    I'd guess it because of patents and greedy pharmaceutical companies. Plus, manufacturing your own drugs and giving them to other people probably runs afoul of a few laws.

    Here's a kicker. I was diagnosed as a Type 1 in 1997. Back then, a 10ml vial (U-100) of Eli Lilly's Humulin R or NPH costs--I'm not making this up-- $17.00. Today, without insurance, the same vial goes for $99. And this is for insulin made from recombinant DNA tech that has been around since the '70's like the article mentions. It's a fucking crime that pharmaceuticals have jacked up the price of the only types of insulin that can be bought over-the-counter.

    • I'd guess it because of patents and greedy pharmaceutical companies. Plus, manufacturing your own drugs and giving them to other people probably runs afoul of a few laws.

      I'm going to guess that it has a lot to do with liability. If some hacker makes a bad batch of insulin and the people he sells it to die or go into comas, there's going to be a lot of lawsuits. What hacker is going to have the money to pay off, or the money to buy malpractice-style insurance to cover the awards? This is where the costs of the pharma companies come in, besides recouping development and research. Every time someone sues a pharma company for something like Celebrex side-effects, someone has t

    • I was diagnosed as a Type 1 in 1997. Back then, a 10ml vial (U-100) of Eli Lilly's Humulin R or NPH costs--I'm not making this up-- $17.00. Today, without insurance, the same vial goes for $99. And this is for insulin made from recombinant DNA tech that has been around since the '70's like the article mentions.

      The wonders of modern science. Pharmaceutical companies use recombinant DNA tech to make a drug cheaper to make but more expensive for sick people to buy.

      Ain't it grand?

  • Homebrew insulin is no different than homebrew beer/wine from a technical point of view and exist in similar space. There should be no problems in this open-source insulin movement, that is distribute information on how to manufacture it, selling the equipment and raw materials to make it. However, regulators will jump all over it the minute someone tries to sell their finished product or transport it across state lines.
    • I wouldn't say that this is quite like homebrew. Wild yeast in your beer might just make it taste a little different. Wild yeast in your insulin bioreactor will either kill off your modified strain and ruin the batch, or at a minimum introduce unexpected byproducts that will mess up separation. Oh, about separating: you can drink beer and wine straight. To get an injectable product you need some precise chemistry to separate the insulin from the dead yeast, leftover growth medium, and alcohol. Moonshiners h

  • Since early last century, insulin has been produced from the pancreas of animals.

    I didn't release the pancreas was such a recent evolutionary development.

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