The Biohacking Movement and Open Source Insulin

In March of 2014, I knew my eight year old daughter was sick. Once borderline overweight, she was now skeletally thin and fading away from us. A pre-dawn ambulance ride to the hospital gave us the devastating news – our daughter had Type 1 diabetes, and would be dependent on insulin injections for the rest of her life.

This news hit me particularly hard. I’ve always been a preparedness-minded kind of guy, and I’ve worked to free myself and my family from as many of the systems of support as possible. As I sat in the dark of the Pediatric ICU watching my daughter slowly come back to us, I contemplated how tied to the medical system I had just become. She was going to need a constant supply of expensive insulin, doled out by a medical insurance system that doesn’t understand that a 90-day supply of life-saving medicine is a joke to a guy who stocks a year supply of toilet paper. Plus I had recently read an apocalyptic novel where a father watches his 12-year old diabetic daughter slip into a coma as the last of her now-unobtainable insulin went bad in an off-grid world. I swore to myself that I’d never let this happen, and set about trying to find ways to make my own insulin, just in case.

Victor’s Hack, Eva’s Insulin

Eva and Victor Saxl [Source: The Eva Saxl Story]
Eva and Victor Saxl [Source: The Eva Saxl Story]
Think the day can never come when insulin isn’t commercially available? That might have been what Eva and Victor Saxl thought, but they learned otherwise. In the late 1930s, the Saxls were a young Jewish couple living in Czechoslovakia. They saw the writing on the wall and managed to get out of the country ahead of Hitler’s tanks. Good timing, but unfortunate execution, as they ended up in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Only 19, Eva had just been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, and now had no legal access to insulin thanks to tightening Japanese control of the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai.

Victor, a textile engineer with no formal background in biology, took it upon himself to hack his way out of the problem. It had been less than twenty years since insulin had first been isolated from the pancreas of a cow, so Victor read up on the process, borrowed some lab space from a Chinese friend, and eventually succeeded in producing a murky brown fluid from water buffalo pancreases. Having no way to test his concoction, he injected it into his ailing wife and waited, not knowing if his semi-purified sludge would kill her. It didn’t. In fact, she perked up as her blood glucose dropped. Victor’s hacked insulin saved his young wife’s life and with ramped up production, over 400 other refugees were saved. Eva and many of the refugees lived well into their 80s.

The story of the Saxls inspired me to start collecting the materials I’d need to purify insulin from mammalian pancreases. My background is in biology, and I’ve done plenty of time in the lab. I figured I’d be able to handle the tricky business of chopping up the tissues and doing the extractions and purification. After all, how hard could it be to replicate the tools and materials of the 1920s-era labs where insulin was originally purified?

As it turns out, it’s not impossible, but it’s not easy either, and with the competing demands of a job, a family, a house, and now learning how to manage diabetes traditionally, I didn’t make much progress. Plus, I know how finicky whole-tissue extracts can be, and in the end, even if I managed to get a relatively pure insulin, it would be either cow or pig hormone, not human. This put a bit of a damper on my efforts and it became sort of a back burner project.

Better Living through Molecular Biology

Six-subunit storage form of insulin [Source: Wikipedia]
Six-subunit storage form of insulin [Source: Wikipedia]
A few weeks ago, I started thinking about DIY insulin production again. I knew that commercially prepared insulin was no longer isolated from mammalian pancreases. That practice had been all but abandoned since the gene for human insulin had first been inserted into bacteria in 1978 by Genentech. The gene was carried on plasmids, small loops of DNA that can be inserted into bacteria or yeasts. Under the right conditions, the protein encoded by the gene on the plasmid can be produced and excreted by the cell. Grow a lot of cells that do this, and you get a lot of human insulin. Purification of the insulin from the cell culture is not trivial, but at least compared to whole-tissue extracts it’s relatively straightforward. The recombinant technique also allows for modifications to the sequence of the protein, which not only alters its effects in the body, such as how fast it’s absorbed, but also allows modifications that allow it to be purified more easily than insulin from whole tissues.

I also had plenty of experience with molecular biology from my lab rat days. I’ve made a decent number of plasmids, grown buckets of recombinant E. coli, and purified proteins from it. Seemed to me that this would be an easier way to go. I started thinking about what I’d need to hack together a molecular biology lab at home and start learning how to produce human insulin. It turns out that I wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines.

Open Source Insulin

A friend recently sent me an article on home-brew insulin that got me pretty excited, at least initially. The article had the breathless yet measured headline, “Biohackers Aim To Make Homebrew Insulin, But Don’t Try It Yet”, and centered around the efforts of entrepreneur and founder of Indie.Bio Ryan Bethencourt to develop an open-source insulin using a cloud-based platform. His ultimate goal is decentralized production on insulin that can be provided free to everyone who needs it.

[Source: BioCurious.org
[Source: BioCurious.org]
So far, the organized efforts to produce insulin using a collaborative, open source model seem to be centered on getting enough funds together to cover prototyping and initial experiments. But it also seems like the basic plan has been thought through well and addresses the root problem: getting cells to express insulin is easy, but purifying it enough to not kill the diabetic is not. To that end, extra amino acids will be attached to the insulin to allow it to be purified in fewer steps.

Biohackers working on open source insulin are quick to point out that what they’re doing initially is strictly research – citizens scientists looking at an interesting biochemical process and sharing their results. But it’s clear what the ultimate goal is, and it’s worth think about what a world looks like if we ever get to the point where producing insulin at home is as easy as brewing up a batch of porter or lager. Given the reactions I’ve gotten from most of the endocrinologists with whom I’ve tried to discuss even the slightest variance from standard insulin therapy, I can’t imagine that the medical community would welcome such innovation with open arms. Still, I think the biohackers will forge ahead and cross the regulatory bridge when they get there.

The Killer App for Biohacking

Bio-luminescence experiment [Source: BioCurious.org]
Bio-luminescence experiment [Source: BioCurious.org]
To be honest, the biohacking movement seems a bit moribund right now. Sure, there are a fair number of biohacking groups listed online, but scratch the surface and you’ll find quite a few of the web sites for these groups haven’t been updated in years, and a few bear the “Lorem ipsum” mark of never having been completed. To be fair, there are plenty of maker spaces across the world with wet labs equipped for both biology and chemistry experimentation, and some biohacking groups, like BioCurious and Genspace, appear to be vibrant and productive. But as far as I can see, biohacking hasn’t achieved the breakthrough that more traditional maker fields have. I think this has a lot to do with the “killer app” effect; PC sales didn’t explode in the 80s until VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 were available, for example. I think affordable 3D printing was the killer app that allowed the maker movement to really gain momentum and caused makers to start to coalesce into groups. Biohacking hasn’t had its killer app yet.

Maybe open source insulin is just what the field needs to stir the creative juices of citizen scientists and get things rolling. For now, though, biohacking and open source insulin appear to be just on the edge of breaking out, and that’s encouraging to me. My daughter was born in 2005, and it’s conceivable that she could live to see the dawn of the 22nd century. She’s going to need a lot of insulin to get her that far, and I’d like to think that she won’t be tied to a centralized medical system for the next 85 years. And who knows – maybe she’ll catch the biohacking bug and be on the crest of a wave of innovation that’ll help her make her own insulin someday.

122 thoughts on “The Biohacking Movement and Open Source Insulin

  1. Go figure, Dr.’s aren’t thrilled about someone using 1920’s tech to produce something in your kitchen when labs with millions of dollars in equipment pump it out daily.
    The research is interesting for the novelty and humanitarian aspects, but as a way to ‘break free’ from the system it seems like reinventing the wheel. Surely there’s some pharma company in Asia that you can buy insulin from over the internet if you really feel 90 days isn’t a good enough supply. You’d also better have the means to store it properly otherwise you’ll be doing damage rather than good.

    If the world market is shut down in such a way that all life saving pharmaceuticals (insulin, epinephrine, &c) cease to be available, chances are you were killed in the initial disaster. Having a 20 year supply of insulin or ingredients to synthesize it will likely be destroyed with you.

    1. I don’t get the impression that he actually intends to inject his daughter with his product. (unless someday necessary for some reason) Once you have the ability to do something yourself you no longer are dependent on someone else to do it. Obtaining the ability to do it yourself doesn’t mean you actually are doing it yourself.

        1. Dan, you may find that the 3rd world or developing nations healthcare initiatives would be quite amenable towards developing low-resource means to producing medicinal grade insulin. Several universities have competitions focused on areas such as this.

      1. That isn’t the tone of the article at all. He quite clearly states he hopes his daughter won’t need to spend her life depended on Big Pharma. He intends to fully use his own brew once he can prove it’s safe (he doesn’t seem concerned about efficient production).

        1. Depending on Big Pharma != using Big Pharma.

          Hey, if you would drive me to work and back every day that would be cool.
          If you stop… I’ll just go back to driving myself.
          I’m not going to depend on you, I will still own a working car and know how to use it.

          If he (and his daughter) have the ability to make Insulin then they are not dependent on Big Pharma to do so. This does not mean they have to actually use the insulin they make and that they can’t just keep buying it from the drug store. They just happen to have a backup source.

          1. At some point you took lessons from someone on how to drive a car. You took a test, possibly two on how to properly drive a car. you’ve read books on how cars operate and have experience operating one.
            Having micro-bio lab experience is not the same as having pharmaceutical formulation experience.
            There’s no way to know if your amateur lab work is up to snuff without actually injecting it. It’s not the growing GMO bugs that pump out insulin that I doubt, it the ability to purify the insulin in such a manner that not only makes it behave as the brand they’re currently using, but also (IMO most important) keeping it clean so you don’t give someone sepsis while you try to save their lives.

            Somethings are easier at Big-Pharma scale. Quality control is one of them. A skill not tested isn’t a skill at all.

          2. @Leithoa

            I do see your point. However… IF the situation he talks about ever were to actually occur.. she would have a choice. Inject this.. it may kill you or it may save your life. Don’t inject it… and die for sure. Well… seems like a pretty clear one to me. That would be a harsh reality but no amount of declaring why it wouldn’t be safe could change anything.

            Now.. as long as the choice is.. take this one which you know is good or take that one and save a few bucks but it might kill you… That’s a very different (and I hope clear) choice!

            I’m not really arguing that they are likely to ever need this. I suppose the probability is non zero but hopefully it’s at least close to zero! Most likely this is simply an exercise of ‘lets see if I can do this’ and hopefully he will answer it to the best of his probably limited ability to measure the purity of his insulin WITHOUT actually injecting it. The prepper scenario is probably more of an excuse to play with his lab than anything. So.. sounds like a perfect Hack a Day project to me!

          3. This is exactly right.

            I think it’s hard to really visualize this scenario for folks without Type 1 in the mix. For most survival you can have a hope of finding some way, if an inferior one, to take care of your needs yourself if there’s a long term emergency (hurricane to world economic crisis) — maybe not hamburgers, but at least bugs. Maybe not a house, but at least a shelter. Maybe not running water, but at least gathered and boiled. It’s hard to explain to people how it feels to have no hope of filling in the blank on Maybe not Humalog, but at least _____.

        2. I’m all for his goal insulin is very expensive compared to other forms medicine in general. And I’d love know how he gets everything working so when the infrastructure in the US breaks down or becomes un reliable prices triple or whet ever else happens i might have an alternative

          1. It’s expensive, but nowhere near as expensive as meds for arthritis and other inflammatory diseases: not DMARDs but Anti-TNFs and biologics. So not MTX, think Humira, Remicade, Enbrel and the like. Those cost TENS OF THOUSANDS per year! Then again, universal health insurance/system makes it affordable.

          2. @Meh It’s nowhere near as expensive…currently. I don’t know exactly how the prices compare to insulin, but wasn’t it just recently that a drug that was $10/pill became $700/pill?

          3. In Brazil I can buy a 10mL vial of insulin Humalog over the counter in a drug store for about $28. Whereas the exact same insulin made in the same factory purchased here in the USA will cost me $280+. That’s how much US big Pharma is screwing over the US Diabetics.

    2. The author talks of a “killer app.” I think the killer app will be home-cooked human androgens. I’m saying that out of a mix of both cynicism and hope. Synthetic manufacture of insulin, when it was discovered, was the key that unlocked the door to manufacture of anabolic steroids as well as female birth control medicines.

      Homebrew insulin won’t make people rich. Illicit manufacture of ‘roids will, and the product could quickly grow into something more trustworthy than the current source: powders from overseas, of unknown provenance, mixed into a solution of who-knows, for retail sale in the locker rooms. There’s potential here for locker room product that’s better, cheaper, and more trusted.

      The money (even if illegal), will attract some small amount of high-level talent. Think of the fusion that we’re seeing right now between human genetics and pharmacology. Could we see batches of gear manufactured for specific body types (cursed with the chubby genes)? For people who would rather keep a vegan diet? Etc, etc. Microbrew steroids, essentially. Those breakthroughs could yield generally-applicable “nuts and bolts” biotech knowledge, as the feedback loop between jocks and manufacturers would be drastically narrowed..

      Killer app will come. In the meantime, we’ll see furries trying to grow peacock feathers on their bums, bodybuilders trying to become The Incredible Hulk — not just ripped, but also green.

      To address your point: I don’t think basement biotech is ever going to be the doomsday prepper’s wet-dream, and I was slightly dismayed that the author introduced that angle. These technologies are going to get very weird before they change our lives.

        1. I agree, insulin holds huge potential on its own. At the same time, I don’t think it has the same cachet as you’d see with precision-manufactured variants of old-school gear. I’m talking in terms of potential markets for these compounds, which might end up being “gray market” in the beginning.

          T is both more marketable as well as more approachable in illicit markets. I am not a bodybuilder myself, but my understanding of the state-of-the-art in that field is that insulin is something that men will for the most part only use once they’re already otherwise pushing the limits of underground endocrinology.

          That said, we could see “dorm room” insulin making inroads in another area: cognitive enhancement. When we can precisely control/utilize our metabolism of carbs, that’s something that could beat the pants off of, or at the very least supplement, things like modafinil and prescription amphetamines. Perhaps in the future, when college kids cram for finals, they’ll step down to 2.5-5 mg of methylphenidate but fill in the gap with orange juice and insulin?

    3. I don’t get it man.. Why do all the negative comments on these posts always asking like they haven’t read the article.. The author didn’t say he approached doctors with plans to make insulin with technology from the 1920’s.. He said his research started with a guy from the 1920s.. In fact he said that producing insulin with bacteria is the newer tech and allows for alterations. And when he discussed those alterations with endocrinologists it didn’t go well..

  2. The thing that bothered me most when I was diagnosed in 1987 was that I was now tied to that dependence. Diabetes ruins your life and no number of doctors telling you different will make it so. Once diagnosed your life is a constant balance of enjoy / survive but not both.

    1. That’s a crappy way of looking at it. As a fellow diabetic (who also has epilepsy and other life-long illnesses to deal with), I think your attitude sucks. Your life has been saved by those medications. Remember that no one is forcing you to take them.

      I think you need to get your head out of your arse and learn how to be grateful for what you have.

        1. it’s the part about it ruining your life. I’m also type 1, diagnosed in 1993. while much younger i was resentful over it just like you sound to be, diabetes might have ruined your life, if it weren’t for insulin :) blame your own body for thinking that your pancreas was creating deadly cells that your body felt like it had to kill off. After all, type 1 is an auto immune disease.

          1. Well said, Matt.
            Diabetes only ruins your life if you let it. It’s your own choice. Diabetes is an easily treatable illness, and only ruins your life if you fail to treat it properly or have such an ungrateful, crappy, self-pitying attitude about it that you become a lonely wretch.

          2. Wow, too bad he doesn’t have a right to his own perspective about his own health or lack there-of. Good thing you guys are here to encourage him; sounds like he needs some hope, not a bunch of people being insensitive, harsh, and critical. Your perspective (just like his) is valid, but doesn’t give you the right to diminish anyone else’s experience.

          3. @ J. Hoffman: How’s that soapbox?
            The person in question has every right to have his own perspective. And I have every right to disagree with his perspective and proclaim my own opinion on the subject. I even have the right to call him ungrateful, because that is what I think he is.
            Likewise, you have every right to your own opinion on the subject and to proclaim it.

            Question: How does one give hope to someone like that? The disease in question is perfectly treatable, the problem has already been solved. I refuse to kiss the arse of every sad sack with a self-pitying attitude about something that definitely does not ruin the life of anyone who is able to get treatment.

          4. @DainBramage

            > perfectly treatable

            It’s nice that you don’t seem to mind being T1 and have somehow attained a nirvana of perfect control. Bravo for you.

            As a fellow T1 (for 20 years), I can not share your enthusiasm for constant never ending monitoring, injecting, adjusting, calculating, correcting, over-correcting, re-correcting, being stuck without insulin while out and about, continually budgeting your allocation of insulin and consequential carbohydrate intake so you don’t wind up short at the end of the month, 3 monthly doctors visits, monthly pharmacy visits, (bi-)annual endo visits, (bi-)annual ophthalmology visits, being the first thing you think about when you wake up, the last thing you think about when you got to sleep, being the reason you are unable to have the career(s) you wanted….

            T1 Diabetes is shitty. There are no two ways about it, it’s a shitty disease, I can deal with it, I can sort of treat it (like using a sledgehammer to hang a picture), but it sure as hell ain’t easy.

  3. I’m not trying to be political here, but the easier answer (excluding the apocalypse scenario) is to move to Canada. With our communist ideals like “socialized health care”, I have literally never had the thought of “How much will this injury cost me” or “Should I go to the doctor or just see if this passes”.

    My jaw dropped to the floor when I learned the other day that even those Americans with the best health plans often pay a huge deductible.

      1. As an Australian, the American medical system is a joke. Yeah, every system has flaws but some are just better anyway. Rather a few problems in the system than the system being the problem.

        1. As an American, the Australian medical system seems like a joke to me. I imagine that’s largely because I am seeing it from the outside, and because much of the information I get about it (more about the British and Canadian systems, of course, but Australia, also) is from sources that have a point of view they are pushing.

          Maybe you should consider whether your perception of our system is accurate. Your position as an outsider might make you feel you are objective, but you may simply be (literally) ignorant.

        1. I would not exactly phrase it that way, but yes ;)
          The REAL opposition to socialized health care in the US is mostly the insurance industry(racket). Supported heavily by the pharmaceutical companies and the fact that we can, literally, sue for just about anything.
          In socialized medicine countries, hospitals and doctors enjoy some level of legal protection above the standard in the US.
          Pharmaceutical companies spend a lot of propaganda money convincing the world that they have to recoup their astronomical RandD costs. while this is true, what they fail to mention is that they WANT to do so at at %1000 profit within 1 year of going to market. And then continue to ride that initial high cost as long as possible.
          And the biggest scammers of all, insurance jerks.. They have wormed their way so far in there that the hospital no longer even have control over the pricing of anything they do. Even if they didnt WANT to charge you $300 for a single Advil which you could have bought in a 100 tab bottle down the street for $15, they COULDNT.

          1. @MRE — Depends on how much you want to work at it. The last few times I had to deal with large pharma bills, I simply hit Google and found out the street price for the various drugs/supplies. I presented the figures to the hospital billing department and requested a refund for the difference. Only once did I have to threaten to get nasty/call the press/call my congressman, and I’ve never walked away without either a full refund or a compromise charge.

        2. They don’t even need to die off;

          A (relatively) healthy ecosystem can be developed where both publicly and privately run healthcare services run in parrallel, with (perhaps unfortunately) central arbitration of a publicly funded fee.

          Essentially the private sector ends up specialising in high throughput, low-risk or otherwise relatively “elective” care, charging as much extra as the market will tolerate, but having a guarenteed fee from public funding. You can even end up with publicly-subsidised private insurance for the “mid-band” voters so they can spend higher than their income bracket, so the insurance companies will never die.

          Your publicly run services can be asked to cover all bases but will aggregate towards the higher-risk and higher-cost interventions (which is good for subspecialties and rare diagnoses) but have the options of outsourcing to private services their lower-risk and more cost-attractive (but high demand) care. As an added bonus, there is a cooperative drive to efficiency and restriction of the private care cost.

          When done well, the funding for treatment can flow efficiently to the patient, rather than being tied to geographic or political boundaries; When done badly, public funds are wasted on relatively unessecary therapy at the expense of higher-cose but rarer and greater-impact care.

          It requires tight and fair-minded governance and a mandate to supervise multiple levels of healthcare funding and delivery centrally. It also requires about 10% of GDP (private + public) and 20% of government expenditure to get top-10 out of G20 population health outcomes. For perspective;

          http://gamapserver.who.int/gho/interactive_charts/health_financing/atlas.html

          I also suggest you have a look at HALE (Healthy Adult Life Expectancy)
          http://apps.who.int/gho/athena/data/GHO/WHOSIS_000002,WHOSIS_000001,WHOSIS_000015?x-profile=xtab&x-format=html&x-axis=YEAR&x-topaxis=GHO;SEX&x-geo=COUNTRY&x-sideaxis=COUNTRY;YEAR&x-title=table&filter=COUNTRY:*;REGION:AFR;REGION:AMR;REGION:SEAR;REGION:EUR;REGION:EMR;REGION:WPR;SEX:*&format=html&profile=embed

    1. If you weren’t trying to be political, what on earth were you trying to be?

      Insulin isn’t any more readily available there than here. I say that as a person who has lived for years in both countries.

    2. Meh.. Canada’s on borrowed time. It’s only a question of when the US ‘liberates’ and anexes Canada. Really, I can hardly believe it hasn’t happened already!

      — runs, ducks, gets popcorn —

      1. It’s been over five years but I remember the NHS debate about the new insulins — the log insulins that most Type 1 diabetes are advised to use. Using them normally improves lifestyle — they are fast, so you can dose per meal and eat more like you would without diabetes. The older insulins, you had to dose and then eat certain numbers of carbs at certain times of the day, like it or not, and you couldn’t throw in a piece of birthday cake or even an apple spontaneously. However, studies showed no actual *health* advantages from the new insulins — you didn’t live longer or have fewer complications. So it was recommended that NHS no longer cover these new insulins but only the old ones. I think the fight against that won out, but you would never see that sort of thing put up with by us Yanks.

        Also, I know that at the time it was very difficult to get an insulin pump, at least in Scotland. I read some info from one parent who needed to go before a board and demonstrate need, etc. Same reasoning, pumps make life easier for many with diabetes (instead of stopping and getting out the insulin and syringe and dosing 6 to 12 times a day, you just hit some buttons), but studies didn’t show any actual health improvements, and pumps are much more expensive than syringes.

        Today, of course, the pump and CGMS technology is getting better so that there may be better health outcomes with it, but that’s only happened because so many Yanks spent so much money on those luxury items that the companies that made them were eager to make better products in order to rake in more of that dough. . . ;)

  4. I wonder if there’s any bio hacking analog to the SETI project where skilled amateurs could do useful grunt work where you need to roll a marble down a proverbial ramp ten thousand times. Brewing a bucket of E. coli with a gene I created is interesting maybe once but it’s like a kid’s science fair project. Brewing a bucket of algae to see how good a candidate for biofuel production it would be feels more purposeful.

    1. There is the Folding@Home project run by Stanford, which runs various protein simulations via the distributed clients. Good way to put that idle video card to work when you’re not playing games.

    1. Actually, that already exists… the thing we’re lacking is polymer chemists interested in the open-source DNA synthesis project over on diyhpl.us (diyhpl.us/diyhpluswiki/dna/synthesis/notes/). Come and join in on IRC on the freenode network, channel ##hplusroadmap

      Also MEMS engineers and related micro/nano fab folks. The real ‘killer app’ if you must use that phrase, is a lab-on-a-chip that does DNA synthesis, purification, cell transformation and incubation, an possibly some other analytical techniques too (shred the grown cells, then pass the lysate through a spectrometer, etc).

      1. Agreed. The future of “at home / DIY” medical treatment, diagnosis and disease management is going to be powered both by the medical breakthroughs themselves, as well as the small, affordable, easy to use machines to do them. But I think it is the later which will have the most significant impact, and will advance much quicker. To put these tools into the hands of the every-man / impoverished, it will be much more about using latest tech to improve the execution of the process rather than improving the process itself.
        Witness the rise of openPCR, and the guys with SEMs, X-ray machines and hacking together MRI machines.
        The new processes invented/discovered in the medical field will come a bit slower than the REinvention of the machines to do them. As tech marches forward, that time lag waiting for new processes allows us to apply the current technology BACK to existing processes.

      2. Molecule Biologist here, with a PhD in Organic Chemistry. And I’m a DIYBio enthusiast, check out my projects on Hackaday.io/dnhkng

        This is not the right track to go down. It’s the equivalent to attempting to make a DIY inkjet printer from scratch. Sure, you *might* be able to do it, but you would be better off spending your time developing a better 3D printer. DNA oligo synthesis is already a solved problem, and you can now buy custom 1000 base pair sequences of DNA for under $100 which are ‘ready to use’, and regular primers for a few bucks a sequence.

        But to use them, you need things like cheap PCR machines, incubators, and cheap sources of enzymes. Those need to be the focus, and treat DNA oligos as the easy-to-obtain consumables they are.

        Some actual good research topics would be:
        – How do I purify my products safely and cheaply?
        – How can I produce restriction enzymes and polymerases cheaply?
        – How can we set up a sharing system?

        The big issue is that although DNA development is like software development, you need to transfer the ‘code’ physically!

    2. A killer app would be producing testosterone at home with bacteria, people would go crazy for it (roid heads, teenage boys, athletes, etc…) and it could be adapted to many different kinds of hormones, kind of like how viagria is used to treat pulmonary hypertension, it’s a sad commentary but you get more money catering to the dick than to the sick.

  5. ‘Dan Maloney’ did a lot of writing, but what has he actually done for this movement, other than writing this article to get others interested/involved? Don’t get me wrong, being a fanboy/cheerleader is great, and it’s awesome to see biohacking on hackaday (there was even the peristaltic pump a day or so ago)… but I guess I’d just like to know if that’s all ‘Dan’ is up for… or if he’s rolling up his sleeves and sitting down to bang a keyboard or a pump a lab pipette. Is he joining the ranks, or just watching from the sidelines cheering the biohackers on?

    1. Actually, Nathan, what people do working to solve a problem is worth something.

      The persons who gather and provide data are just as important as the coder who creates the database that holds it so the researcher can make sense of it through varied analysis.

      People have broad talents and abilities, as well wants and desires, and while, for example, I can create the materials and tools I need to create art and I can promote and market what I create, I choose to simply create my art and leave the other two tasks to people that have the time and can do it better.

      David with his post made many people aware of the insulin and even other related projects. Cheerleaders definitely help win games, don’t they?

      That is worth applause, not a wondering thought of “Oh, is that enough?” or “Couldn’t he do more?” Sorry, I think you’re trolling, even if you meant well.

      1. No, I wasn’t trolling or saying “couldn’t he do more?”… I was just wondering if he’s limited to being interested, as the first two paragraphs of the article tell us, or if he’s doing more. It wasn’t meant to be judgmental, I just felt like the article was a bit of a cliff-hanger.

  6. I read about producing insulin in lettuce in ScienceDaily in 2007. It would seem to be easier to grow plants for insulin than in a recombinant bacteria, particularly if it can be taken orally. Plants are tolerant of a lot of growing conditions. Grow, harvest then eat, refrigerate, freeze or dry–all processes that can be accomplished off the grid.

    As I understant it they inserted the coding into tobacco mosaic virus. I wonder if a gene gun would also work some kind of a totally edible plant like peas or dandelions that might not work with TMV.

    Article: Insulin Grown In Plants Relieves Diabetes In Mice: Holds Promise For Humans

    1. It all depends on what get’s you the best yield or ROI. If you get a ton of compound X from plants but it takes tons of equipment to purify/isolate it’s not as accessible.
      For the price of a pressure cooker and some mason jars anyone can culture bacteria. Maybe one day they’ll be available through mail order like brewers yeast. Though the same could be said for plants that produce the same compound

    2. For a variety of reasons, insulin has to be injected. There were some attempts at inhalable insulin but those didn’t work so well. The stomach destroys insulin (as do many other things).

      To the OP’s comment: “She was going to need a constant supply of expensive insulin, doled out by a medical insurance system that doesn’t understand that a 90-day supply of life-saving medicine is a joke to a guy who stocks a year supply of toilet paper.” – I have just the exact problem. My insurance keeps pressuring me to move to a 90-day supply of insulin via mailorder pharmacy. Seriously, a 90-day supply of something that has a refrigerated shelf life of around 90 days and can’t be frozen or exceed 86 degrees Fahrenheit, shipped to me via the mail?

      As far as biohacking – trying to self-make insulin by anything other than the legacy “extract from pork/beef pancreas” method is going to have the same problems in an apocalypse as a normal insulin supply. Don’t forget the fact that modified insulins (humalog, lantus, etc) are even harder to produce. (Lantus is a perfect example of reasons to hate the current patent system – various loopholes in the laws allowed Novartis to delay the launch of generic Lantus by at least a year PAST the patent expiration date.) A more reasonable goal is the efforts to create an artificial pancreas using a combination of insulin pumps and CGMS – http://diyps.org/ for example. Also potentially trying to find a solution for bloodsugar monitoring post-apocalypse might work.

      Also, some tips for the OP: In emergencies, if you live in the USA, Walmart carries Novolin R and N for $25/vial. They are far more difficult to work with than the “designer” insulins nearly all diabetics use now (the action profile of R is MUCH longer-acting than Novolog/Humalog, and NPH is very “peaky” compared to Lantus – even with 3x/day spaced NPH doses you’re probably still experiencing more basal peaks than with once-a-day Lantus), but they’re a fraction of the price. (Note that R/N insulin prices vary widely – I’ve been quited as high as $125/vial from some pharmacies for R.)

      1. Andrew, there really aren’t many issues with getting a 90-day supply of insulin via mail. I’ve been doing it just fine for the past 8 years or so. They ship 2nd-day air (FedEx) in a sealed thermal container loaded with ice packs. The ice packs are always still frozen when I open the container, so unless you are getting a delivery left outside in Yuma in August, you’re probably ok. (I live in southern CA, for reference.)

        Also, insulin has much longer than a 90-day shelf life when kept refrigerated. The vials in my shipment last week don’t expire until 9/2016. They’ll be gone long, long before then.

        Not to say that you have to change how you get your prescription – it’s your choice! – but it’s really not a bad way to do things. Tends to be a little cheaper, too.

        1. Worked for us, too — the up side of not having to scramble at the end of each month to call in the prescription after it was allowed but before we ran out of the last batch outweighed the concerns about warm or cold weather.

          However, we live in an area that can get down to 15 below and where packages sometimes get left out of sight, so freezing was a possible problem. My biggest problem with temperature issues is that you might not know the insulin was “bad”, and I understand the effect is not lower efficacy but inconsistent efficacy. But I figure you can get the same issue if the new pharmacy tech doesn’t know to keep the Lantus in the fridge, no?

      2. We got caught out of town without Novolog once so we used the Walmart brand as a stop gap, and it really was not hard at all. Now we keep an extra vial in the fridge and one in the fridge at relatives’ houses, $25 to know you have a workable solution for a short term problem situation is a good deal.

  7. Great article. I’ve been diabetic since 1975. I was 3 years old at the time. I’ve also been concerned about the same things- dependence on a limited supply chief among them, and my kids have been tested and both show a 15% chance of developing diabetes (nothing yet fortunately). I’m going to spend some time researching Victor Saxi’s methods- not that I necessarily want to repeat the process, but I’d like to know where to start if I had to. Thanks for the starting point!

    BTW John- my experience hasn’t been that bad, and I don’t feel as if my condition limits me very much. I do, however, feel the constant balance and attention.

  8. A friend of mine pointed out recently that there are very few people in the hacker community doing actual science.

    His point was that most of what we see is engineering (or art) and not science. Engineering is when you know what the result will be beforehand, while science is when you explore things and you don’t know what you’ll find.

    My friend was at the Artisan’s Asylum Hackaday meetup, and was struck by the number of artists. Of course it’s *Artisan’s* Asylum, but he noted that the space has lots of high-end tools… with no one using the tools for exploration.(1)

    The people who developed 3d printers were doing science – it wasn’t clear at the time whether it would work, or be useful or interesting. The people who see what effects different light frequencies have on plant growth are doing science. The people who hook remote sensors up to their garden… not so much.(2)

    Science isn’t particularly difficult or expensive (much of it), but we’ve been taught to have a goal-oriented engineering mindset. You’re given a goal and have a skillset to create that goal (every tech job I’ve ever had), and if you don’t have the goal or the skill, then you can’t do it.

    You can’t go anywhere without a destination and a map.

    Compared to electronics, bio hacking is less accessible to the average person in both equipment and knowledge. Also, unlike electronics, the current state of biohacking is science.

    It makes sense that almost no one is doing it ATM.

    (1) His observation not mine, and I don’t know if this is actually true.
    (2) Not disparaging anything, just pointing out the difference. I like a lot of the projects featured here, including many art projects.

    1. “The people who developed 3d printers were doing science – it wasn’t clear at the time whether it would work, or be useful or interesting.”

      You are talking about the people who did it back in the 70s (or was that 60s) right? Surely you don’t mean the very recent development of the RepRap and all the little commercial companies that came after it producing consumer level printers?

    2. I routinely work with solutions that cost $1000 per mL. Enzymes, kits, high purity reagents. On top of that are sequencing analyses that cost $600 – $2400 per run. During few years of my PhD I burned through at least $200000 and I was trying to be thrift with spending. Research stuff is expensive because you need to justify financially the limited production run. Also, it is usually patent protected, so they can take their markup from researchers.

  9. Interesting thoughts, I wonder how many of us have the same thoughts of having to be dependent on the system like the author of the blog. We live a healthy life, mostly see a doctor of physical check up, other than that, we stay clear of using the system. When our son was diagnosed, this very issue hurts, deeply. Not, that we need insulin, but the fact that we have to be dependent of this substance, produced by someone else puts us on edge.
    Thank you for sharing.

  10. You can make the same argument for most pharmaceuticals, or antibiotics. We need them all to get along in the world. Insulin is just one in a crowd, and being ‘tied to society’ is no bad thing. You’d be dead otherwise. it’s not a negative, it’s a positive. If society collapses so much that insulin stops being produced, insulin is the least of your worries.

    1. No, it’s the most if you’re Type 1.

      For most other conditions you’ll find a second best solution. Maybe you use a less effective drug with a long shelf life, maybe you use a food or alternative medicine, maybe you endure the condition, maybe the symptoms endanger or limit your life

      But if you have Type 1 and don’t have insulin (or can’t keep it refrigerated), you die, and soon, and there are no alternatives.

      It’s a fairly unique situation, I can’t really think of a lot of others that are like it. Potentially epi pens, but again, this is not a 1 to 1 because a person can go for years or decades without exposure to an allergen and survive, without insulin not so much. Maybe asthma medications for some?

  11. Preppers make no sense to me. If hell rains down an apocalypse or somehow zombies stop being a fantasy and annoying meme, I WANT TO DIE. Because guess what? YOU ARE GOING TO DIE. Period. Nobody gets out of this life alive… You’re going to die someday and there is no stopping it thus far. So if fit hits the shan, I’ll gladly go out with dignity rather than trying to prolong a hellish non-existence in some bunker somewhere, trapped until I run out of food or whatever gets me anyway. It’s not worth it.

    1. A lot of people say that, but… gosh darn (!) don’t their opinions change when something actually happens!

      And it seems reasonable to choose to die when you know you’ll die soon anyway (see: On the Waterfront), but when death isn’t so certain and you just might make it a few more years with some effort… would you choose to die then?

      And most people who make this statement don’t consider the whole picture. Would you die when your friends would be carrying on? Would you die and let your young daughter fend for herself? Would you kill her instead of trying to give her the best chance of growing up?

      People who make this statement are, basically, saying it for shock value. Their self image is based on getting noticed, from a childhood where getting noticed got them some attention from a parent.

      You are in control of your life. Your goals are based on continuing that life. Your day-to-day purpose is to achieve those goals.

      A meaningful life isn’t based on getting noticed.

      1. >>>>”I WANT TO DIE. Because guess what? YOU ARE GOING TO DIE. Period. Nobody gets out of this life alive…”
        >>”People who make this statement are, basically, saying it for shock value.”

        Usually I hear it said to justify an addiction. Somehow in the addict mind having your internal organs slowly displaced by a growing mass, probably feeling that happen for a period of months or even years before dying in your 50s or 60s is somehow equivalent to peacefully going to sleep decades after that and just not waking back up.

      2. Wow, you really took it in another direction. We were discussing insulin DIY production, but you chose to attack someone who said a not unreasonable thing and turned it into a diatribe against ‘people who make this statement’.
        Don’ get me wrong, I dislike the narcissistic personality type as much as you do, but sometimes it is best to just ignore them. If ‘eyes bleeding’ is such a type: I have no idea, don’t care.

      3. Fabulous reference, but I think you mean “On the Beach”? Book and movie very good. Also, miniseries of “A Town Like Alice”.

        I think folks also don’t keep in mind that you don’t have omniscience during a crisis, you usually can’t know how extensive or long-lasting any bad situation is.

  12. If there’s anything in Predictive Markets then surely this article is proof.

    I’m quite taken with the writers primary angle being that his daughter will spend her life in a Post-Western Society, possibly post-apocalyptic.

    This topic is has always been one of either fictional escapist literature, or late at night over candle’s, wine and weed hypothetical conversation.

    It seems we’re at a point where A) the majority of people wholly believe a Collapse to be imminent and C) secretly or openly want that Collapse.

    1. >>”This topic is has always been one of either fictional escapist literature, ”

      Did the Babylonians, Egyptians or the Romans ever write fiction like this before it actually happened? No… I don’t have any particular belief it is going to happen in my lifetime or that of my own daughter. But.. hey.. I suppose it could. I’m not really a prepper myself, I have no preparations for anything like that but I do think thinking of societal collapse as solely an item for fiction shows a certain lack of appreciation for the cyclical nature of history.

    2. People have been conditioned thoroughly to view pointed criticism of the wealthy people that control america as weakness.

      This has been effective to prevent class-inequity from being a primary political issue.

      People have been told their whole lives “if you dont like it, move to [some third world country wholly inappropriate to compare with america]”

      All that is left is hoping for the end of the current system. I guess.

      Even pathetic quasi-leftist corporatism is decried as socialism or even ‘marxism’ in usa. We are not dealing with reality.

      We are a post-ethics culture.

    3. Some kind of collapse is almost certainly inevitable, if not imminent. It would be wildly historically atypical for there to not be one at some point, in most societies probably about every 200 to 500 years — and that’s only a few lifetimes. So if your grandparents didn’t see a Great Depression, and your parents didn’t, it’s reasonable to figure you or your children will.

  13. Hello all! This is serendipitous that this post was published. As an M.D., I’ve been in the maker movement for over a decade, but had intentionally tried to work from behind the scenes. My latest endeavor as founding president of my latest makerspace has concluded with it running in a sustainable fashion…and I’ve always wanted to use more of my science background in the hacking/making/creativity side of free time. To that end, I’ve been collecting names of individuals, groups, organizations, and schools who are in this realm so as to lower the learning curve on how to put together a bio-hackerspace together.
    If there are any other bio-hackers out there that would be interested in pushing this new maker fork forward, please email me! I’m not looking to do anything more than get more bio-spaces going and increase their capabilities. There are several physicians I know who feel the same way. Thank you, Clint LeClair, M.D.
    my email is as follows: irrevdoc at g mail dot com (you know where to change symbols and take out spaces)

  14. Not that this isn’t a cool idea, but I can tell you from experience; Insulin is by no means the limiting drug. I’m a type 1 diabetic, and at a paltry 145 lbs, I have extra insulin because I get enough for someone twice my size on my insurance. This means that I am set for a while. However, the insulin is useless without a blood glucose meter to tell you how much to take, and my meter eats four to five test strips a day at a dollar a strip. There are cheaper ones available, with the cheapest being forty dollars for a hundred strips and the meter costing around twenty. That is the same for insulin; generic insulin is as little as twenty dollars a vial, which is enough for me to go at least two weeks on. Realistically, in a dangerous situation I could make my insulin last years by eating meat and low-carb vegetables and taking vitamins, and only take a few units a day would make each vial last over six months (a vial contains 10mL of insulin and insulin is 100 units/mL, so I have a thousand units of insulin per vial – eating fifty carbs a day is five units of insulin per day for me). I would be more limited by my nighttime dose, which is twenty eight units a day, so my vial would last a month and I’ve got a few extras. Test strips, though? I’ve got about one to two hundred at any given moment, so I’d be guessing my doses within a month or two, and that is dangerous because you might just not wake up one day.
    So while we’re thinking of means to hack insulin, how about a precise and cheap way of measuring blood sugar levels? those little watches that beep when your blood sugar is low are pretty useless, so you need something using glucose oxidase or something similar. Hacking one of those would be an amazing feat.

    1. 2 units per day is pure fantasy.. even at that weight you’ll need at least 10-15 units, considering it a mix of basal and rapid action (and not even inflamatory situations or acquired resistence to it was considered). Plus, in non optimal temperature situation, 6 months and it will not longer be insulin in stored vials, but water and aminoacids… No insulin means relative energy for that day, rapid decay.

    2. They used to use urine test strips. They are still available. Definitely a big difference, but a safety fall back.

      If you can’t refrigerate the insulin, though, you only have a month’s worth to use. Even if you don’t, you can only ration so much as once the vial is cracked you’ve got 30 days. I imagine you could use it at partial strength for a bit, but you are back to a guessing game there, especially without the strips.

    3. There are ways around blood glucose testing. With a few odds and ends from your kitchen and garage, you can test the glucose levels in your urine. It’s not so good for dose to dose adjustment, but for knowing that you’re keeping your average blood sugar below the levels where you have sweet urine, which is one way to measure your control. For that matter, urine tasting used to be a thing. The levels of glucose an uncontrolled diabetic puts out in the urine are quite tastable, and with practice you could learn to differentiate levels. Me, I’d prefer the chemical method, but tasting piss would still beat dying. Search for benedict’s reagent for more info. It uses sodium carbonate, sodium citrate, and copper sulfate. You could do it with lemon koolaid, baking soda, and copper root killer.

      1. That’s very right. However, the biggest reason to test bg is hypoglycemia. If a person with diabetes is not hypo aware, getting by without blood glucose test strips will be challenging.

  15. Interesting comments. I think the homemade synthesis of insulin is doable (I am a postdoc in mol bio), but… do you really want to inject something homebrew into your bloodstream? Can you ensure high purity and consistent quality over the years to be fully independent of big pharma?

    I can share you one interesting story from my country. There is a company there that started production of insulin for the home market. It was a biotech start-up that wanted to get their way into the market with insulin. The reasons were exactly what is written here: insulin is a killer-app, it is doable, it is needed and is not patented. They succeeded, but shortly after they started selling it, they faced enormous pressure from US companies that were lobbying against them. Even the national diabetic association was payed/persuaded to campaign against them, even though their insulin was 1/3 of the price. Officially the association was saying that their insulin was “dirtier”, even though they passed all the regulations and had quality controls in place (that is expensive part) to bring the drug to market.

    As for the biohacker scene… it is not engineering, you are not using products that are guaranteed to work certain way. It is tougher to make something more challenging to work. You need a lot of time and experiments to do something beyond basic. So I guess after first homebrew minipreps the enthusiasm fizzles away fast. I cannot imagine someone so dedicated that they would be putting extra hours every day or even over the weekend to make something work. If so, they are already in academia or biotech industry and they are paid for the work.

        1. Right on track. I am Polish, the company is Bioton. They are still in business, actually doing ok. I read a bit more about them now. This is actually a spin off from the research institution. Their human recombinant insulin was the fourth in the world to be put in production back in 1999 (at least that’s what they claim). Since I am in bio, I had occasion to see their presentations on purifying the insulin. They are actually going through crystallization of the protein and they have pretty advanced FPLC systems to get yield and purity. Now I think about the article, maybe it is not a bad idea to have a crude open protocol for producing / purifying insulin available and published. Just for the sake of precaution. Sometimes the information is the only thing that can travel through areas ravaged by war or isolated by other means.

  16. As soon as O’Reilly publishing sent me their first issue of their BiaHacker magazine/e-zine, hackerspace insulin was the first thing I thought of. I’ve been a type 1 diabetic, now, for more than half my life. For as long as I’ve had it, I have wondered what I’m supposed to do if the United States ever has another civil war, or if the Zombie Apocalypse happens, or if the stock market crashes and the economy collapses to the point that Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk can no longer afford to produce insulin. Basically, in any of a wide range of possible situations, I die, and not in a particularly pleasant way.

    My dad ended up finding out that after insulin is harvested from the vats of E. Coli or yeast, it is stored in a sort of crystalline form that is ridiculously concentrated. Unfortunately, the insulin companies refuse to sell it in that form because that would allow you to buy up a stock of insulin that could be stored pretty much indefinitely, and something tells me that the government or the insulin companies, or the illuminati think that you don’t spend enough money on insulin, you should also have to pay extra when you have a whole refrigerator of it go bad when the power goes out for those 7 days (yeah, we have actually brought snow into the house to pack into a cooler of my insulin when the power went out for a week). I guess the FDA probably disallows it because some lawmaker doesn’t think you are mentally capable of properly diluting the crystalline form before injecting it… can’t have any stupid people killing themselves, right (or people who are willing to live with the risk because they believe there are benefits that outweight those risks — I would not blame anyone if I accidentally killed myself, and I wouldn’t die regretting it for a second that I tried to protect myself from an apocalypse that could leave me utterly helpless).

    I wish I was some sort of biochemistry genius, but I just don’t have a head for it. If someone does put together a step-by-step process, though, I would follow it over and over until I could do it in my sleep, and I would collect 5 labs worth of the equipment needed to follow the process, too. I’m just waiting for the geniuses to make this happen so the future doesn’t leave me completely helpless, even if it does end up being bleak at some point.

  17. A whole boatload of crazy in this thread lol. I wish the best for the little girl in the article and hope she doesn’t get any worse off. Perhaps our next president can clean up the mess that is national healthcare lol.

  18. Interesting comments, especially given that I’m an Insulin dependent Type 2 diabetic (although there’s some evidence that I really may be a Type 1.5 diabetic; we’re still working on that).

    Thus, not only should this be of interest for Type 1 diabetics, but it will also be of interest for Type 2 and Type 1.5 diabetics. Plus, one has to remember that the chances of developing Type 2 diabetes increases with age. Not many 30 year olds get it, but a LOT of 80 year olds have it. So, even if someone doesn’t have it now, there’s a not insignificant chance that they may end up having it later in life.

    Also, it’s a disease that tends to sneak up on people. It starts off innocently enough, with maybe a bit of lethargy, and some headaches. Then, there’s often an unexplained weight loss, which some people are happy to have, at least until it keeps going and going. Then, there may be a difficult to treat infection, or body parts may start falling off, relatively unimportant things like feet and hands, or maybe more important parts like kidneys, hearts, eyes, etc. Sadly, the medical community typically doesn’t test for diabetes in “healthy” people, at least until symptoms start showing up. What makes that even worse is that the tests are typically quite inexpensive and easy to perform, and an early screening test could do a lot to preserve the quality of life for a lot of people.

    Anyway, I’m getting off-topic…

    As for preppers, and an apocalypse, remember that such an event doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering event. Hurricane Katrina came very close to being that kind of an apocalypse (and, probably was for quite a few residents of New Orleans). If the New Madrid fault ever kicks off another earthquake similar to the 1811/1812 earthquakes, well, a large portion of the central United States is going to be isolated and on their own for many months if not years.

    There are may other apocalypse scenarios, too. What happens if Ebola makes a foothold in North America? It’s come close to happening several times already, not only recently, but also back in the Reston incident in 1989. If that Reston strain of Ebola had been fatal to humans, well, things could have gotten pretty awful pretty quickly.

    As a person who has worked in the governmental emergency response field, I know exactly how few resources have been allocated to emergency response, and how even a relatively small disaster can cripple society. Even something as innocent as the Y2K scenario had us all frightened (I spent New Year’s Eve of 2000 locked in an underground government bunker, monitoring the situation, just in case something did happen, not that we had a lot of resources to deploy if it had.).

    For that matter, it wouldn’t even take the collapse of society to cause Insulin shortages. If a major biochemical factory or two burned down, or were the victim of terrorist attacks, or have an issue with contamination, there could be widespread shortages. Heck, we’ve seen that happen with some other common medications recently!

    So, it does make a lot of sense to be prepared. I really hope that nothing major ever happens, but, given what I’ve seen over the last few decades, it very well may.

    Now, having said all of that, I’m not sure that DIY Insulin is a real good idea, for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s a darned complex molecule to produce. Another is that, even after it has been produced, it has to be purified, and that’s not necessarily an easy thing to do.

    That also brings up the issue of the feed-stock for DIY Insulin production. In a disaster scenario, will there be sufficient feed-stock, and a feed-stock of sufficient purity? What feed-stock is even required? What other resources are required? Electricity? Pure water?

    Note that genetically modified Insulin isn’t just a matter of slapping a plasmid inside an E. Coli, and letting it go to work. Commercial Insulin is actually made as two halves of the Insulin molecule, which are then chemically reacted together to produce the complete Insulin molecule. This is done in case the E. Coli escapes from the production vat and ends up in someone’s gut. Do you want your gut full of genetically modified E. Coli sitting there pumping out an uncontrolled amount of Insulin? That probably wouldn’t be a real good idea.

    For that matter, care even needs to be given to the idea of having plants produce Insulin. There is a significant chance that these will escape into the wild; it’s happened with just about every other genetically engineered plant that’s been grown. Fortunately, oral consumption of Insulin doesn’t appear harmful, at least to most people (What about those people with an ulcer? Has that situation even been tested?).

    I’m sure that there are people interested in DIY Insulin production, and, almost all of these people are interested it for altruistic reasons. I’m also sure that there are a lot of people interested in DIY genetic engineering for not-so-altruistic reasons, such as inserting the genes for producing THC into tomato plants, or the genes for producing Opium into apple trees. Sadly, those not-so-altruistic individuals may receive a lot more attention (and, probably, a LOT more money), and result in a lot of new laws being passed which will inconvenience the altruistic people (and, probably make a lot of lawyers rich in the process).

    1. THC and opium are already produced naturally in plants which are quite easy to culture. So we basically “only” need less lawyers and less laws instead of more of this (or GMO tomatoes) to address this problem.

  19. This is a completely bluesky comment, but… do you think in the future, it will be possible to put modified bacteria in the appendix, where they could create whatever drugs? Since the appendix isn’t doing much, and it’s purpose in mammals is to house bacteria. Humans are already symbiotic with various bacteria inside us.

    Also… maybe you could upgrade them. New “software” in the form of plasmids or whatever, with some chemical key attached, so that only plasmids with the key would be allowed into your little symbiotes. Then you’d just take a pill with the relevant plasmid, and your unicellular friends could make whatever you needed. It would be a way of delivering cures to people, add new plasmids to their medi-bacteria.

  20. quote: “getting cells to express insulin is easy, but purifying it enough to not kill the diabetic is not”

    Exactly, and “purity” is not as simple think as people may think. One thing is purity from other components of bacterial cells – e.g. cell wall (will cause feaver if injected), other proteins (may cause sensitization), DNA, viruses, plasmids etc. Other thing is quality of insulin itself – has the correct sequence been expressed (mutations), had the molecule been correctly assembled incl. are disulphides in right places (aggregates, fragments), are there uncontrolled modifications to amino acids (deamidation, oxidation, glycosylation, other?) etc. And if you have used anything “foreign” in your cell culture media or during purification process – you have to check for impurities of those things too.

    And if you leave something unchecked, uncontrolled, or even slightly “not right” – guess who’s door lawyers are going to knock on when first patient gets slightly ill?

    1. All of your points are valid (albeit not of equal weight in probability). They are all valid, except the last one. The proverbial lawyers only have standing if it is being distributed to others. This is hypothetically for self-medication, not sale.
      The FDA does have say in producing medicines, even in cases of self-experimentation. But that wasn’t brought up. And frankly, FDA officers are people just like the rest of us. They don’t want to get in the way of you helping yourself, but they do have a mandate to make sure you know what you’re doing- and safely. This is why it makes sense that a local federal officer (be it FDA, FBI, or DHS among the many alphabet soup of agencies) visit your local bio-space.

      Now that knock on the door, I would expect.

        1. My understanding was that he was making it for his daughter, in the event that the commercial supply were to dry up. In that case, the legalities get a bit more murky; it’d be one thing if he was simply going to inject himself, but it’s something else if he’s going to inject his daughter. In any case, various states have differing rules about “practicing medicine”, and “pharmacology”, so one would have to consult the laws of the state in question to see exactly how far over the line he may be going. On the other hand, it’s difficult to see how a jury could convict him if he could prove that the commercial supply was no longer available, that his daughter would die without it, and that it was the only option available. But, that would take some pretty fancy lawyering to prove all of those, especially if his daughter were to suffer any injury or death from the home-made insulin. :-/

    2. If it is really that postulated apocalyptic situation, probably some means of self defense are necessary anyway. Also effective against knocking lawyers – if these don’t have other things to do to improve their personal survival instead of knocking against somebody’s door.
      If in a normal situation I am happy to have medicines available at controlled quality at the pharmacy.

  21. The part that gets me with my diabetes is that a Dr. REQUIRES me to come in and be seen by him before he writes me a prescription for a drug that if I do not take will end my life. If you ask the Dr. about it, they say that insurance companies require them to have a certain number of diabetic patience. I should be able to get a death preventing insulin without having to pay a dr. to write a prescription for it. I am not worried about dooms day or disaster preventing me from getting insulin. I am upset over doctors and insurance companies forcing me to pay them or else they will not give me life saving medications. I am not paying for their services, I am just paying my blackmail. Sounds like the Mob to me.

    1. there are OTC insulins – try relion insulin from walmart. The government has an interest in protecting people like michael jackson from mis-use of sodium propophol (milk of anesthesia). If their were no governement regulations then you would not likely have the same attitude of confidence to self dose when it might kill you. Good luck to you. In medicine the customer is not always right – especially if they are michael jackson. Maybe the doctors you see wish you didn’t have to be forced to come in to see them – and would rather fill your slot with people who work as team players.

      1. Appreciate your thoughts, but I’m afraid I agree strongly with Jonathan here.

        These regulations are set up largely, in my opinion, to protect the commerce of the players in the industry — insurance and medical providers. Many of those individuals probably don’t want that “protection” — they’d rather get patients by providing necessary services. But the lobbyists and trade organizations are definitely in favor of heavy regulation.

        Yes, insulin can be abused — so can Lysol. You don’t have to go beg a doctor for permission to use a can of Lysol just because some people kill themselves using it to get high (I’d guess far more than would abuse log insulins — good note about Regular being available at Walmart, btw).

        I only have a kid with diabetes, I don’t have to deal with it myself, but I can tell you that every single time I go in to see the endo (and I like our endo) I feel like a beggar at the table. Especially as the record of glucose levels is printed out and examined every time, complete with the “why do you think she hit 350 this time?” questions, you feel like you are under the gun. I also tend to be a fairly independent-minded person, so I feel like I have to pretend to be the average American soccer mom to the doctors so they won’t put a Seinfeld-like black mark on my kid’s record. It just really messes with you, mentally, to have someone who is pretty much a total stranger have so much authority over the personal life and health of your child.

        What goes even further is that to get and use an insulin pump or a CGMS you have to have doctor permission. Now, an insulin pump is nothing but a delivery system for insulin, but maybe that can be justified on the grounds that if someone were seriously unable to use the technology — e.g. couldn’t figure out how to punch in numbers on a keypad, that level of unable — the pump could be dangerous. But the CGMS is nothing but a measuring device. It only measures glucose levels, you can’t damage yourself with it any more than you can damage yourself with a safety pin — far less, actually. There’s no reason that can’t be sold without permission. But if you want to use one you need a prescription (which requires a doctor visit) and you need prescriptions for the sensors each month (which means ongoing doctor visits) and you need to “train” on how to use it (even though it comes with detailed instructions on a DVD, but that is an additional office visit).

        Honestly, the pediatric endocrinologists where I live have too many patients, there aren’t enough of them with all the new kids with diabetes. My kid has had diabetes for 9 years without hospitalization, seizure, etc., and with A1C always between 7.2 and 8.5 (not stellar, but not bad). She should not have to stop everything one day every three months to go sit in a doctor’s office, she’s perfectly healthy, she just has an autoimmune defect. And those doctors could use that time to help a newly diagnosed patient or someone with more challenges, like problems with alpha cells.

        As for being a team player, some people are, some aren’t. I’m not. I have no problem with people who are, I don’t think anyone should have a problem with me because I’m not. My kid’s life-sustaining medication should not depend on which type I am.

  22. Good work! Hope you can make it work, and that you never need to use it.
    To all the nay-Sayers – it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a necessary plan, or how long he could die out the insulin he’s got. It’s a step towards more accessible and cheaper bio-stuffs for everyone. Who knows what might appear from this research later – rapid prototyping of drugs? Customised small batches of drugs? Cheaper drugs for pets, if the purity can’t be guaranteed? Or just some minor innovation which has application in a completely separate field? Or perhaps an attitude change amongst people that pharma knowledge should be more accessible? Or perhaps it’ll inspire more people to study medicine? Who cares. Seems like a good project.
    Just don’t let the bio-hacking movement get a bad rep with illegal drugs, like hydroponics has, and don’t do stupid provocative things like 3d-printing guns. It’ll likely ruin it for everyone, especially as it’s a heavily regulated field.

  23. I know this is old. But what about using the e.coli and modifying the bacteria to exist but not reproduce. you could then solve the entire need to synthesis and create clean insulin. it would function like pancreas from inside. there has to be a way to cage or some other way to allow the regrowth against human immune system to keep a consistent rate of bacteria in the body. allowing the death of bacteria to release insulin. granted it means you are more likely to be hypoglycemic but I wasn’t thinking this was a cure, but a stepping stone.

    1. GI absorption of insulin could be tricky and glucose regulation improbable to work well – but interesting idea. Why not implant pancreatic stem cells – if such a thing were possible.

      separate question – has anyone worked out sources for organisms/plasmids that grow the insulin. (stolen?) – Making such would be a bit more than costly.

      Purification would be tricky – as would the sulfide bridges.

      DYI organisms and plasmids could produce unintended hazards.

      Current epi pen prices are really pissing me off. It’s time for a little capitalism or adventurism.

    1. thank you – extensive procedure for an amateur with a background. – equipment could be gleaned from a university lab or supply store – reagents, alcohol, acids and bases and centrifuges and glassware. not likely to be found in the middle of a forest

      the method of testing strength or units is not elaborated. Could measure mg with U/V and then inject test dose. Good luck there – I’d be scared personally.

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