Insulin startup Thermalin Diabetes has earned itself an esteemed new partner in its quest to develop formulations of insulin that will give people with diabetes tighter control over their blood sugar levels.
Cleveland-based Thermalin said today that JDRF will provide it with up to $1 million for specific milestones related to identifying a clinical candidate insulin analog with a shorter tail of action.
The company’s innovation is based on engineering advances made in the lab of Michael Weiss, the chairman of biochemistry at Case Western Reserve Medical School. The JDRF grant will allow Weiss and his team to build on their study of how insulin binds with proteins on cells. In January of last year, the team had a paper published in Nature in which they described in detail the 3D structure of insulin and receptors that it binds to.
Thermalin’s goal with this project is to manipulate how insulin binds with receptors so that it kicks in quicker and lasts for a shorter period of time. That could potentially curb the need for people with diabetes to snack to avoid a blood sugar dip a few hours after a meal, said CEO Rick Berenson.
Current rapid-acting insulin has a tail of three to four hours after it’s injected, Berenson said. “The goal is to have an insulin that is done acting in the two-hour time frame so that it matches more precisely the glucose spike from carbohydrates with a meal.”
When insulin lasts longer than it takes the body to convert the food that’s been eaten into glucose, blood sugar levels get low. “That makes people not feel so good, so they’ll snack to get their blood sugar back up,” Berenson explained. “That’s thought to be a major reason for weight gain.”
A shorter duration of action would be good for daily injection but also for future versions of the artificial pancreas system, he said. First-generation artificial pancreas devices will proactively respond to readings from blood glucose meters. The challenge is that algorithms in pumps can’t initially determine whether blood sugar levels are going up a lot from a meal, or a little from a snack.
“Insulin lasts three to four hours, so if it guesses wrong, the effects of that mistake will last three to four hours,” he said. By creating a shorter tail of action, Thermalin hopes to enable algorithms to maintain tighter control over blood sugar levels.
JDRF, a key source of funding and research toward an artificial pancreas, will contribute funding and an advisory board for the project. Thermalin has committed matching funds..
Meanwhile, Thermalin is also developing other insulin analogs aimed at making insulin injections faster-acting, longer-lasting or more stable based on the needs of different kinds of diabetics. Its lead candidate is an ultra-concentrated, rapid-acting insulin. Berenson said that program should begin IND-enabling studies this summer, with an IND to follow early next year.
The company has been funded by $7.8 million in NIH grants and has raised $9.4 million in equity.