A Funder Partners With Big Pharma for Breakthrough Diabetes Research

Diabetes has emerged as one of the century's fastest-growing health threats, but much of the mainstream news of the disease focuses on type 2—the form once understood to develop mostly in adults, but which is now seen in increasingly younger patients, presumably in connection with higher obesity rates, among other factors.

As we've written, pharma, healthcare organizations and funders are taking type 2 diabetes seriously, and while the disease can often be managed, its prevalence is leading to lots of investment in treatment and care, as well as study of its disproportionate impact on various ethnic or economic demographics.

The journey is a good bit tougher for people with type 1 diabetes, previously known as juvenile or insulin-dependent diabetes. In type 1, the body's immune system destroys the cells that produce insulin, the hormone that helps process glucose. To stay healthy and relatively free of serious complications, these kids and adults need regular doses of insulin, which has been around in drug form for about a century.

The problem is that existing insulin therapies, while life-saving, are far from perfect, explains the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the top global organization funding type 1 diabetes research. The JDRF has been aggressive about improving treatments, as well as finding a cure. In 2015, it took in more than $200 million in revenues, and made $72 million in grants, according to tax docs.

Most recently, JDRF and Sanofi US Services, the American subsidiary of the French-based pharma giant, announced up to $4.6 million in new research funding to develop a new generation of diabetes medicine called glucose responsive insulins, or GRIs. The alternative treatments would be great news for people with diabetes, particularly those with type 1, by working more effectively and by reducing the frequency of dosages.

Currently, type 1 diabetes patients must monitor their blood sugar several times throughout the day and take multiple, carefully calculated doses of insulin based on their food intake, exercise, stress, illness and other factors. A miscalculation or an unexpected variable can lead to dangerous blood sugar swings. In fact, says JDRF, only a third of people with type 1 diabetes maintain long-term blood glucose targets, placing them at risk for serious complications.

The JDRF/Sanofi funding will support four research projects studying various aspects of formulating or delivering the new GRI therapy.

"These drugs may be able to address many of the shortcomings and challenges of current insulin therapy by providing a treatment that can more reliably maintain blood sugar levels within a safe range and potentially help reduce the burden of managing T1D by minimizing dosing frequency,” said JDRF Assistant Vice President of Translational Development Sanjoy Dutta, Ph.D., in a press release.

The four researchers funded under the JDRF/Sanofi GRI expansion of the collaboration are based at Protomer Technologies, a Pasadena, Calif., startup; Monash University in Melbourne, Australia; North Carolina State University/UNC Chapel Hill; and University of Utah.

The new funding represents an expansion of a previously existing research collaboration between JDRF and Sanofi. It's not the only connection between JDRF and pharma companies working in the diabetes space—last year, we wrote about a $1.8 million gift from Eli Lilly and Co., one of the original makers of therapeutic insulin.