Kickoff meeting notes

Winnie’s presentation

  • 400 million + diabetics
  • no generic insulin 
  • poorer communities have limited access
  • complications include blindness and amputations
  • patent strategies keep prices up. The industrial insulin patent is 90 years old; pharma reacts by tweaking patents (for example, they patent the delivery method)
  • Solution: open source insulin. Cheaper, perhaps home brewed, or perhaps brewed at the community level in microfactories
  • Additional advantages: great communication tool to highlight the condition of diabetics; great ramp into citizen science
  • Started at Counter Culture Labs in San Francisco. Founder Anthony Di Franco is himself diabetics. They started the project with a successful round of crowdfunding.
  • Progress: two generic constructs were produced and delivered to E. coli, where they grow enough to express proinsulin with a fluorescent marker
  • To do: get rid of the fluorescent marker and turn the proinsulin into human insulin. This involves protein folding, digestion and purification. Also validation with HPLC (High Performance Liquid Chromatography).
  • When asked “What have you learned?”, interestingly CCL talked about communication, and recruiting people with the right skills. 
  • International collaboration, hence unchartered territory. A group in San Francisco, one in Sydney (Biofoundry), one in Gent. Exciting, but it’s never been done before. 
  • In Belgium we can repeat experiments to validate; maybe find some new approaches (these is what the Sydney group wants to do); and also help communicate.
  • OpenBioLab Brussels (a University-affiliated biolab) has offered help. They have good equipment, including HPLC. Other labs coming through: KASK, a biolab affiliated to the Art Academy in Gent; Break it Down, a science communication collective; Edgeryders, a digital platform that offers near-real time analysis of Open Insulin collaboration, based on ethnography and graph theory. 


Arne - Money can probably be found. I have some experience in asking donors.

Q. Can we know more about the actual process?

Winnie: the body makes a protein with 4 component: a leader sequence, the A-chain, the C-chain (a spacer, facilitating the A- and B-chains to connect to each other) and the B-chain. In the end, insulin is only made of an A- and B-chain. Manufacturing just A- and B-chains will work, but is very very inefficient, because these two chains do not react with each other easily. The challenge of making insulin is that of increasing the efficiency of this reaction.

The CCL innovation to do that is something called a Leucine zipper, that attaches to both chains (which are produced by two different genes), and attracts copies of itself like a magnet. Leucine zipper helps A- and B-chains find each other.

Round of presentations. Lots of bioengineers-biochemists.

Alberto: How is it going to work? Do you guys specialize in one phase of the process?

Winnie: CCL would like us to purify and validate with HPLC. That also means validating that their bacteria (E. coli with DNA insertion) breed true in our lab as well as theirs. One problem is: how do we get the bacteria to begin with? The Sydney lab has solved this problem, we have not tackled it yet. There are legal restrictions. Maybe we could go through Open BioLab, which is part of a university.

Federica: do we have access to CCL results?

Winnie: yes. Everything is on Google Drive. We need to ask what the policy for access is. We also need to be clear on the license of this stuff, i.e. terms of reuse for publications etc.

(Technical discussion of the process as developed by CCL. The gist of it: making proinsulin seems easy, but cutting out the relevant part and purifying the resulting insulin from the junk is going to be harder).

Arne: how long does this take? Engineering efficient microfactories looks like a very big deal.

Winnie: we are not engineering yet. We are going for a proof of concept. Our proof is complete when we have a viable open sourced process for making insulin that works in the lab. Making it work in production is not on the table yet. CCL got about halfway through it in 18 months. Imagine another 12-18 months to complete the proof of concept.

Notes afterwards

Winnie: the next steps I gathered from the conversation were to:

  • Agree on a shared vision and approach (research + communication/education)
  • Figure out shipping of bacterial sample
  • Estimate project costs & timing for crowdfunding/other funding sources
  • Get a hold of more OI documentation

Winnie: you should see more documentation popping up in the Drive over the next few days as I get them from CCL. They might be able to give us some info on the shipping as well.