The Helmsley Charitable Trust has awarded a $2.5 million research grant to Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine to advance the field of glucose-responsive insulin in type 1 diabetes.
The NIH-funded university, based in Ohio, already received a $1 million grant from Helmsley back in 2013 to develop new injectable “smart” insulin molecules that detect abnormally high levels of glucose in the body and correct them.
With the first grant, researchers at Case Western Reserve designed a novel class of those glucose-responsive insulin (GRI) molecules.
The new funding will go to a lab at Case Western headed by Dr Michael Weiss, who has been studying insulin for 35 years and developed a number of insulin analogs commercialised by a company he spun off called Thermalin Diabetes.
Weiss and his research team will benefit from the grant for three years to develop their new GRI molecules. Unlike some other smart insulin molecules, which are designed to circulate longer in the bloodstream, these would stick to the inside of the skin until high blood sugars are detected.
The challenge resides in tweaking the chemical composition of the insulin molecule to make it more responsive to blood sugar levels, so that it has the fastest response to blood glucose spikes and releases just the right amount of insulin.
These modified insulin molecules also need to be able to bind to proteins under the skin and prevent too much insulin from being absorbed when blood sugars are low.
Researchers will create different variants of the engineered molecule for these purposes. Each will be tested, along with regular insulin and long-acting insulin, first in a laboratory setting then in animals, to determine what form is likely to work best in humans.
If one of these insulin analogs stands out – that is, gives more appropriate control of blood sugar than unmodified insulin or long-acting insulin, in different animal models, the research team could make a Pre-Investigational New Drug (IND) application.
The IND, which is submitted to the FDA, is a gateway to the next stage of development: Phase I clinical trials conducted in humans. And if all these tests prove successful, the new GRI may be developed through Thermalin.
Researchers working on smart insulin in the UK are making some progress too. JDRF-funded scientists at the University of Birmingham recently found a way to build capsule containers for insulin, which would break open when exposed to high levels of glucose.
If all these projects succeed, they could bring us a step closer towards the end of repeated glucose monitoring and multiple daily injections for people with type 1 diabetes.

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