New insulin source advances diabetes treatment

by Laura Smith, February 16, 2010

The new year has already marked a new advancement for those who suffer from Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. SemBioSys Genetics, Inc. in Calgary, Canada discovered the safflower plant has been successful at housing the insulin hormone.

In people without diabetes, insulin is secreted in the pancreas and is the hormone needed to let glucose enter the cells and provide energy. It also maintains blood glucose levels in the body.

With diabetes, the body attacks the cells in the pancreas that produce the hormone.
Currently, insulin is produced in laboratories using genetically engineered bacteria. It costs about $50 a vial and is not readily available to those who are unable to afford it.

According to SemBioSys researchers, the injection of the insulin protein into the safflower plant can produce more than one kilogram of insulin per acre of safflower production. This could be enough to supply 2,500 patients with insulin for one year and be up to 40 percent cheaper.

“Plants have been a source of medicine for thousands of years,” said president and CEO of SemBioSys Genetics, Inc., James Szarko, in a press release. “The innovative nature of our plant-produced platform is drawing interest from pharmaceutical companies due to its ability to provide a low-cost insulin alternative for patients that suffer from this
chronic disease.” The process will work by injecting the flower with

insulin protein and extracting the insulin from the seeds of the flower.

“Once you put the DNA that codes this human insulin protein into the plant, as long as you give it enough of the other DNA that basically tells the plant to make this protein, it’ll make the protein,” biology professor Michael Terribilini said.

Transferring the DNA isn’t easy to do, though.

“The actual inserting a gene into a plant can be tricky,” Terribilini said. “We have lots of good tools for manipulating DNA in just about any way we want. For plants, the trick is getting this gene to actually get inserted into the plants’ own DNA. It’s the only way it works.”

Terribilini said one of his concerns with the safflower injections would be finding the room to grow massive amounts of the plant and whether or not it would harm the natural environment.

“We have some concerns with having these genetically modified plants and where do you grow them, how to keep it from spreading around or affecting the natural wildlife in the area,” Terribilini said.

As the father of a 9-year-old son with Type 1 diabetes, Terribilini said it doesn’t matter to him where the insulin comes from, just as long as it is produced.

“If we can lower the cost of production, do it safely and it works, that’s great,” he said. “What I’m hoping for is the day where we don’t have to have insulin.”
Sophomore Katherine Mantz is a Type 1 diabetic and said the safflower injections could be a great benefit to making insulin more cost effective for her and for those who cannot afford insulin.

“My whole life, my family has been paying a lot of money for insulin. Making it more available and cheaper would overall benefit everyone as a whole,” Mantz said. “I personally use a lot of insulin because my body does not react as sensitively to insulin as some diabetics. This makes me have to use and pay for a lot more insulin. With a cheaper product that is produced in higher quantities, this will not only help diabetics like myself but all diabetics around the world.”

Kitty Parrish, director of health services, also said the process is a good idea.

“Diabetes is expensive and it would bring the cost
down,” Parrish said. “Around the world it would have people living longer because they could treat it.”

According to Parrish, about 20 Elon students report having the disease.

“We don’t have an accurate number because a lot of students don’t report it,” she said. “There are more than that on campus, but that’s all that I know about.”

Parrish also said she has seen a rise in Type 2 diabetes in the past three years.
SemBioSys is beginning the process of human trials in Canadian patients. The company is hoping it will be successful and be able to deliver insulin to more diabetics at a much lower price in the coming years.

“To a diabetic, not having insulin will lead to severe problems,” Mantz said. “This is a life or death situation, and insulin should be less expensive for all who need it.”


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