New source of insulin blossoming on the Prairies
Canada made its mark in the fight against diabetes a century ago with the discovery of insulin, and now, our country may be poised to change the face of diabetes again by creating insulin in a whole new way.
A group of pioneering Canadian scientists is working on a way to make a much cheaper form of insulin using an easily grown plant: the safflower.
Insulin has been a Canadian claim to fame since the 1920s, when Dr. Fred Banting and Dr. Charles Best discovered insulin and how it controls blood sugar levels. Today, diabetics around the world give themselves regular injections of the hormone that their own bodies can no longer produce. The insulin they use is sometimes harvested from animals, but much of it comes from genetically engineered bacteria and yeast that produce “biosynthetic” insulin.
While today’s insulin is effective, it’s also expensive to produce. In many of the poorest nations of the world, diabetic patients often can’t afford the $800 a year it costs for a year’s supply.
According to the World Health Organization, the West is home to about 35 per cent of the world's diabetics and yet consumes more than 70 per cent of the world's insulin.
But scientists at the University of Calgary are now working to change that. They have figured out a way to genetically manipulate safflower flowers to produce insulin. By inserting a human insulin gene into the plant, the safflowers become little insulin factories. Their seeds are then ground, the oil extracted, and the insulin harvested.
The idea was first developed by Maurice Moloney PhD, in the Biological Sciences Department at the University of Calgary who then began collaborating with his colleagues Dr. Morley Hollenberg in the Faculty of Medicine.
"We are the first people in the world to produce insulin from a plant,” Moloney tells CTV News.
Their work led them to form a biotechnology company with the university, called SemBioSys, which has just completed new research on their technology in humans. The testing has found that the plant-produced insulin acts like the real thing when given to healthy volunteers.
“The insulin that they are making from the safflower works identically in the body and is chemically identical to the insulin we make from our pancreas,” Hollenberg told CTV.
The insulin the company is producing is officially called SBS-100, but its developers are dubbing it "Prairie insulin," in honour of the region where safflowers grow so well.
Their work comes as insulin use rises every year, with more people with type 2 diabetes needing to use insulin because their diabetes medications are no longer working. The Calgary scientists say plant-based insulin could help meet that increasing demand.
Each acre of safflower flowers could produce more than one kilogram of insulin, which could treat 2,500 diabetic patients for one year. That means just 16,000 acres of safflowers could meet the world's total demand each year.
Now that the safflower insulin has passed through Phase 2 trials and found to be safe for use in humans, the next step is to test how well it works in those with diabetes.
Phase 3 trials in Canadian patients are set to begin next year, which will be the real test of whether the work of the Calgary researchers really contains the seeds of another made-in-Canada discovery.
With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip