In the Face of High Costs, DIYers Hope to Brew Their Own Insulin

Miniature biomanufacturing kits like this prototype could revolutionize the pharmaceutical industry. (Credit: Amino Labs, CC BY-ND)

Soon after Federick Banting discovered that insulin could be used to treat diabetes in 1921, he sold the patent to the University of Toronto for about a dollar. Banting received the Nobel prize because his discovery meant a life-saving drug could become widely available. Nearly a century later, an American with diabetes can pay as much as US$400 per month for insulin, driving some uninsured patients to desperate and dangerous measures. Clearly, something went wrong.

Our lab studies biosecurity, so when we heard that a group of do-it-yourself biologists was working to solve the insulin affordability problem by figuring out how to manufacture insulin patent-free, we got to know them. After digging into the insulin affordability issue, we argue that what’s keeping insulin expensive is not patents – it’s regulations. By operating in a regulatory blind spot, DIYers could upset the status quo for drug production.

Patents don’t make insulin expensive

Discovering and developing drugs is expensive. Patents help drug companies recoup the costs from their investments by granting them a monopoly for a limited time. Once the patent expires, competing companies can begin producing generics: off-brand versions of a patented drug. This healthy competition drives prices down.

So why, with the original patent long-expired, is there still no affordable generic insulin?

The insulin for purchase today is not the same insulin used to treat diabetic patients nearly 100 years ago. That insulin came primarily from animals. Today, insulin is brewed up by microbes that have been genetically engineered with the gene for human insulin.

Insulin pumps are one of the newer ways to administer the drug to diabetic patients. (Credit: Click and Photo/Shutterstock)

Insulin pumps are one of the newer ways to administer the drug to diabetic patients. (Credit: Click and Photo/Shutterstock)

And insulin is seldom injected with an old-fashioned syringe and needle anymore. Now there are insulin pens, pumps, test strips and other devices that improve the quality of life for diabetic patients. Pharmaceutical companies have also modified the chemical formula to produce faster-acting or longer-lasting insulins.

With each of these inventions came a new patent.

But the benefits of these “improved” insulins are debatable, and there’s nothing preventing competing companies from selling older, long off-patent versions of insulin. So what’s the holdup?

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