INSULETE could hold the cure for Type 1 diabetes

Modern medicine has largely rid the world of some of the most widespread problems society has faced — smallpox, polio and the measles, to name a few. However, there are still some killers for which doctors haven’t found an answer.

With INSULETE’s new patent, however, the third-largest killer in the United States may be on its way out the door.

The targeted disease is Type 1 diabetes, a chronic condition in which damaged pancreatic cells are unable to produce insulin. Insulin is needed to move simple sugars in the body from the bloodstream to the cells, where they can be used for energy.

Dr. Hans Sollinger, the world’s leading pancreatic transplant surgeon and founder of Madison-based INSULETE, has created a gene therapy technique that can transform liver cells into insulin-producing cells. The company was profiled as part of a new business series done this fall by UW-Madison students.

The therapy is the first of its type around the world and could one day be a cure for the disease with which 1.5 million Americans live.

Sollinger’s motivation is deeply personal. After losing his brother at the age of 31 to secondary diabetic complications, he decided to devote his career to management techniques. Sollinger has performed more kidney and pancreas transplants than any other surgeon in the world.

“The idea to use gene therapy for diabetes emerged around 2000 in my lab,” Sollinger said. “I was disappointed by other methods and felt that we should take a totally different approach.”

And so INSULETE was born.

Many of those suffering from Type 1 diabetes are children and young adults. Most will experience impaired vision and a high risk of heart disease and stroke, while some will even develop kidney failure.

Type 1 diabetes accounts for $14.9 billion in health care costs each year. While this one-time injection to cure diabetes could have an enormous effect on medicine, it could also have tremendous monetary implications for the health-care system.

INSULETE is currently in the second phase of research and development; there is a finished product with the capacity for large-scale production. The treatment has been tested in and has successfully cured rodents.

Clinical trials in dogs are beginning. However, more money is needed to move the research to this larger animal model in veterinary schools across the nation, and eventually into human studies.

Not only will dog trials help predict how the therapy will work in humans, but it will also have a huge effect for the owners of nearly 1 million diabetic cats and dogs in the United States.

“What is not widely known is that at least 20 to 30 percent of these animals are euthanized after the diagnosis is made because the owners either cannot afford the treatment or just do not have the time to take proper care of their pet,” Sollinger said. “So the animal health care market will be our first business target followed by overlapping development for humans.”

The INSULETE team hopes to have a good idea about the treatment’s efficacy, dosing and possible complications by the end of 2017.

Sollinger recognizes that INSULETE may still have a lot of hurdles to jump before application is complete, but he has one thing to say: “I do believe the gene therapy is conceptually the very best way to move forward.”

If all goes as planned, Sollinger hopes to see a small number of patients injected within two to three years.

–Molly Sequin
Sequin is a student in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.