Medical patents typically last 20 years, but because of minor yet regular advancements to the insulin production process, these patents have been maintained for nearly a century. Biohackers working on the Open Insulin Project are now working to come up with their own protocol to create the compound that diabetics have relied on since 1922. They plan to make their research available so that a generic drug company can take up their process to produce a low-cost version of the drug.

“The state of the art in diabetes treatment has changed little in decades, something that I personally am frustrated by along with many others living with diabetes,” explains Anthony Di Franco, one of the Open Insulin organizers. “Whether directly or indirectly, we’re hoping our work will improve access to insulin.”

Photo by Hep Svadja

Di Franco has had Type 1 diabetes since 2005. His initial interest in hacking diabetes was in closed-loop glucose systems and DIY pumps. The idea of making a bioreactor to create insulin seemed like a remote possibility in 2011 when he co-founded Oakland, California-based biohackerspace Counter Culture Labs. Then, in spring of 2015, Di Franco was introduced to Isaac Yonemoto, who has a background working on insulin, and Arcturus BioCloud, a biotech startup that could provide DNA synthesis services. This made Open Insulin seem like an achievable goal. They formed a Meetup group, successfully crowdfunded their experiments, and began the lab work by January of 2016.

Photo by Hep Svadja

“The main method we’re looking at […] involves expressing human proinsulin in E. coli and cutting and folding it into insulin using a series of steps involving treatments with enzymes and chemicals that parallel what’s done in the body,” explains Di Franco.

Photo by Hep Svadja

So far the group has succeeded in creating proinsulin and are working on confirming that it was made correctly. The next steps will be cutting and folding the proinsulin to make insulin. They don’t expect to initially be able to produce insulin that is pure enough or scalable enough to be manufactured, but at that point they plan on seeking a partnership with “an established small manufacturer or academic lab equipped to address these aspects properly.”

“Most immediately, we’re aiming to set a milestone in what can be done by biohackers in a modestly funded and equipped lab, and inspire others to take on more ambitious projects and share the knowledge we develop along the way about doing so. I hope in the long run this empowers people working in small-scale settings to not just duplicate what can already be done in big labs and factories, but to actually innovate,” says Di Franco.