The Open Insulin Project
When Frederick Banting discovered insulin in 1921, he refused to put his name on the patent. He felt it was unethical for a doctor to profit from a discovery that saved lives. Co-inventors James Collip and Charles Best later sold the insulin patent to the University of Toronto for just $1, as Banting proclaimed that “insulin belongs to the world, not to me.” Flash forward to modern times, and we find ourselves in a world where insulin prices have been soaring for years. Even though the inventors gave the patent away, a small number of large pharmaceutical companies today control insulin production with no generic versions available. The situation is especially bad in the US, where diabetics cross the border into Canada to access insulin at an affordable price.
For this reason, it makes me happy when I come across projects like the Open Insulin Foundation. It’s their stated goal to create an open-source model for insulin production. Some people argue that you can buy cheap insulin at Walmart for $25 per vial right now with their ReliOn brand. The problem with this insulin is that it uses old formulations and won’t give you the freedom of modern insulin. There’s no long-acting formula available, so you’re stuck with intermediate or premixed insulin. While it keeps you alive, it is not a good solution for most diabetics. This is why I got excited when I saw that the Open Insulin Foundation is not only working on a short-acting analog insulin but also a long-acting glargine-style insulin.
The company launched in 2015 with $16,000 raised from crowdfunding. It’s staffed by volunteers who work out of community labs in Oakland, Sunnyvale, and Baltimore. If the project is successful, it will sidestep patents and enable small-scale manufacturers to produce cheaper generic insulin. It will rebuild the $27 billion market for insulin with no megacorporations and no profit. Instead, we’ll see a world where anyone with a bit of cash can build a DIY lab in their garage and make open-source insulin. Knowing Banting’s thoughts on the matter a hundred years ago, it’s difficult to argue against this development.