Biohackers With Diabetes Are Making Their Own Insulin
Diabetes is a punishingly expensive disease. In an Oakland warehouse, scientists are going DIY.
David Anderson pipettes yeast under a laboratory fume hood that’s surrounded by graffiti. From a beaker, he extracts a tiny amount of the microscopic fungus and transfers it to a test tube, which he then spins in a centrifuge to separate the proteins from the rest of the broth. The next day, he will inject the protein mix into an electrically charged gel, and if all goes well, the smallest protein will wiggle to the front, identifying itself as insulin.
Anderson is not a biochemist; he didn’t even major in science in college. He is part of the Open Insulin Project, a biohacker collective that is trying to produce the lifesaving drug and provide it to people with diabetes for free, or close to it.
Insulin enables cells in the body to use glucose circulating in the blood as fuel. People with Type 1 diabetes don’t produce enough insulin, while people with Type 2 diabetes have become resistant to it. Without sufficient insulin, people experience high blood sugar, or hyperglycemia, which, over the long term, can cause heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and nerve damage. In severe cases of insulin insufficiency, ketoacidosis sets in, where the liver releases too many ketones into the blood, turning the blood acidic and potentially ending in death.
“For people with Type 1 diabetes, insulin is as necessary as oxygen,” says Dr. Irl Hirsch, the diabetes treatment and teaching chair at the University of Washington.
Diabetes has become the most expensive disease in the United States, reaching $327 billion a year in health care costs, $15 billion of which comes from insulin. And the cost of insulin keeps climbing: It tripled in price from 2002 to 2013 and nearly doubled again between 2012 and 2016. For instance, in 1996, a vial of Humalog, a standard insulin produced by Eli Lilly, cost $21. Today, the list price is $324, an increase of more than 1,400%. Without insurance, costs from diabetes care can tally up to thousands of dollars per month. As a result, 25% of the 7.4 million Americans on insulin have started to ration the drug, which can result in deadly consequences.