Open Insulin so far
A group of citizen scientists at Counter Culture Labs, a hacker space in Oakland, California has been developing an open-source protocol to make insulin for about a year and a half. The world needs more economical sources of insulin because 1 in 2 people who need it lack access to insulin worldwide, and this burden falls disproportionately on the poorest communities. Longer term, we hope that by starting with insulin we can broaden our scope to develop more general protein engineering capabilities and provide a practical foundation for small-scale groups working in distributed fashion to experiment with and produce other biologics.
We’re very near to reaching our first milestone of producing and isolating proinsulin, after which we’ll be redoubling our efforts to develop a simple, end-to-end protocol to produce insulin. We’ve had several collaborators join our effort in the meantime, including a group at ReaGent in Belgium, another at Biofoundry in Sydney, and another here with us in the Bay Area at Fair Access Medicines.
What have we learned about having citizens define and help advance our research project?
Our team has benefitted from participation from people with a broad diversity of backgrounds and interests - from veterans of producing biologics at pharmaceutical companies, to people with PhDs and years of work experience in relevant fields, to college students and total beginners who are just interested in starting to learn and contribute. The sharing of knowledge and responsibilities within our group thus mirrored what we were seeking to support beyond the group.
How do we ensure long term sustainability for our project?
We originally raised a little over $15k to get started via a crowdfunding campaign, a small budget that has nonetheless proven adequate. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to stretch our financial resources a long way with donated and deeply discounted second-hand equipment and reagents, and the contributions of skilled volunteers to keep our equipment running. Thus we have no recurring expenses, which has proven to be the most important way to conserver resources and keep the project sustainable in its high-risk seed phase. This has put us on a firm foundation to reach our first milestone, the production and isolation of proinsulin, the first major step on the way to making the mature, active form of insulin. Once that is done, we plan to pursue our next steps and undertake whatever further fundraising effort we may need to do so, possibly involving a distributed ownership structure and holding and sharing of the fruits of our efforts under some sort of peer production license to ensure we develop a viable commons around our work.
Challenges we still face are keeping continuity in the work of the group and preservation and transmission of knowlege as members join and leave the project, something that is becoming more urgent with our developing international collaborations. The urgent questions of distributing the work effectively and making good use of everyone’s time and enthusiasm and providing all involved with the support they need has us eager to develop better organization and get people with better organizational skills involved; let us know if you can contribute in these ways!
How do we encourage change at policy level?
We have learned more about how much we don’t know about the complex geopolitics and economics around insulin than about how to directly address the policy dimensions of access to insulin and access to medicine in general. But the fact remains that our fundamental rationale for our work is economical, and has to do with the impact that decentralized production could have immediately and how it could change the landscape of incentives in the longer term to favor better policies.
We hope our work will have several effects. First, by enabling more production of insulin by more groups, it can increase competition in the market for insulin, which is currently dominated by 3 large manufacturers who face criticisms of acting as an oligopoly and lawsuits credibly accusing them of illegally colluding to fix prices. Increased competition might quickly lower costs, bringing insulin into reach for more people, and decentralized production might avoid problems with supply chains reaching parts of the world where it’s currently uneconomical to ship centrally-produced insulin. Second, in the longer term, reducing profits from sales of insulin could help to shift economic incentives towards developing better treatments, and ultimately a cure, for diabetes rather than the highly costly and inconvenient chronic treatment that those with diabetes must currently live with. This should synergize with the third effect, mentioned before, of making it easier to experiment with biologics by putting the tools for protein production and purification in more hands.
Then, with these realigned economic incentives around insulin and a cure for diabetes, we can revisit policy questions from a more favorable position, advocating for policies that favor innovation from small-scale groups and revoke the legal privileges large manufacturers have won to protect their oligopolies.