Defying death rates: insulin biohackers and their novel solutions

by Hoshita Undella (’24) | October 11, 2021

Art by Caitlin Chan (’22)

Around 422 million, or roughly 9.3% of our global population, currently live with diabetes, one of the leading causes of death today. The World Health Organization (WHO) recorded over 1.6 million diabetes-related deaths this past year; what is the cause of this tragically high number? One word: price.

With the monopolization of the insulin industry, three major companies (Novo Nordisk, Eli Lilly, and Sanofi) now own close to 90% of all insulin produced around the world. Prices have skyrocketed in the past few years, with all three companies experiencing a 15% annual increase since 2012. The companies have priced each vial between $175 and $300, making it unaffordable for the average citizen. The glaring issue is that manufacturing these vials costs only about $6.16 per unit, prompting consumers to protest the outrageously large profit margins that each company reaps. 

One biohacker group is researching the process of producing insulin at a cheaper price. The Open Insulin Foundation (OIF), a non-profit led by Anthony DiFranco, has been working on “reverse-engineering” insulin for the past six years, hoping to reduce its market price to within the $5 to $15 range. Additionally, OIF is an open-source company, enabling worldwide access to its novel methods of insulin production. With this innovative approach, they hope to establish laboratories around the world to aid areas in dire need of insulin.

Since starting the foundation, the group has consolidated their production process into five steps. First, they identify and isolate the proinsulin proteins found in mediums like yeast and bacteria cells. Once isolated, the proteins are marked to differentiate them from other materials. They are then run through a series of purification steps to completely separate the proinsulin proteins from other substances. In the final step, OIF volunteers cut the proinsulin protein, effectively developing pure insulin.

This whole process involves a variety of technologies such as a bioreactor as well as an inoculation device to aid fermentation and pull out the proinsulin proteins from yeast and bacterial cells. Overall, for a greater reach and impact, OIF is looking to establish local insulin production labs with estimated installation costs of $1 million per location. OIF claims that it will cost around $70 per year with an average cost of $6 per vial to manufacture a steady supply of insulin for one person. 

With a projected 14,000 insulin consumers, their net benefit calculations predict that the advantages of this method will outweigh the initial establishment costs. Assuming that these labs can be constructed in developing countries and areas experiencing high death rates by diabetes, the diabetes-related mortality in these areas will decrease substantially.

By keeping their process open-source, OIF is inspiring many others to step into the insulin industry and find novel approaches to cut insulin costs. Some newly-inspired biohackers are pioneering cutting-edge technologies such as insulin pills, pumps, and patches, offering new ways to combat the inaccessibility and unaffordability crisis. 

Looking into the future, reliance on monopolized insulin will decrease as a result of smarter, more affordable methods of production. “There was a time for being angry,” said DiFranco. “Now that [people] can actually see an end to this soon, it’s not anger anymore. It’s just determination.”

Let us step forward as a community to innovate and push the boundaries of biotechnology!

Categories: Science

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