This morning's announcement of Merck Pharmaceutical's acquisition of SmartCells made my day! SmartCells, Inc, CEO Dr. Todd Zion started at MIT in chemical engineering. Talking to his cousin who had type 1 diabetes, at a family gathering Dr. Zion realized the daily struggle of multiple injections and the frustration of having an external device that patients have to deal with. From that single conversation, Dr. Zion's engineering imagination went into warp drive, creating a product called SmartInsulin.
What Dr. Zion believed he could do was develop a biodegradable polymer that would hold insulin. The polymer would sense whether to withhold insulin or secrete insulin based on the blood glucose level, thus reducing daily injections to once a day! In other words, it has the potential to regulate your blood sugar so to avoid hypoglycemia, which can often be a death sentence to diabetes patients.
When Dr. Zion introduced this idea a few years ago, patients were excited by the concept! Insulin has had many reiterations, but few breath taking reinventions. The idea was so inspired that Dr. Zion won a $50,000 award giving him the seed money to begin the process of breathing life into this invention. JDRF stepped up to the plate with a 1million dollar grant furthering his work.
The SmartInsulin technology works like this. SmartInsulin uses modified insulin attached to a biodegradable polymer containing sticky sugar groups. They mix it in a solution with a sugar-binding molecule and, in the absence of any other sugars, immediately binds to the sugar groups attached to the insulin. As more sugar binding molecules grab on to the modified insulin, a network forms to hold the insulin in place. When glucose is added to the system, it pushes the insulin bound sticky sugar groups out of the way releasing the insulin into the body. The more glucose that is present, the more insulin is shed from the dissolving sticky sugar network or polymer.
About a month ago, I heard that Dr. Zion had secured approval for a small phase 1 human clinical trial to begin in February in Belgium. While clinical and regulatory goals will have to be met and the trials will need to embrace larger numbers of patients, this experimental insulin holds hope and promise for all of us!
Today it was announced that Merck paid SmartCells, Inc, $500 million dollars for the rights to SmartInsulin giving this novel therapy a boost for getting into the marketplace. Perhaps, some people will feel that's outrageous. But the fact is that for new drug development, the average cost from petri dish to marketplace runs 1.4 billion dollars! Five hundred million dollars sounds about half way there, and, if you think about it, that is about where SmartCells is in the process of getting SmartInsulin into our hands!
To Dr. Zion, I send my congratulations and look forward to your visit to DC in January for our JDRF Research Summit, which is open to the public.