Open Insulin: biohackers trying to create a "microbrewery" for insulin as an answer to price-gouging

Originally published at:


The Open Insulin project (“a team of Bay Area biohackers working on newer, simpler, less expensive ways to make insulin”)

That’s the real definition of hero[s].


I cheer this effort but will they get slapped down by the FDA? Even if you develop to an effective and safe standard it needs “approval” and I’m sure some pharmaceutical lobbyist is already plotting against this.


I’m plotting against it!

We’re not talking carrots and potatoes from a garden plot.

“oops! we made a bad batch. sorry you died of sepsis”


I just saw these guys briefly at San Mateo Maker Faire a little over a week ago and I thought the exact same thing.

I can’t believe somebody hasn’t tried to do it sooner but I did fail organic chemistry so I have absolutely no understanding of how difficult it would be to do this.


The alternative is “Oops! You’re not rich. Die, diabetic Poor.”


Remember that the alternative might be whoops you died of entirely preventable causes to keep executives in coke and yachts. As long as everyone knows what they are getting into they are trading a possible bad outcome in place of a certain bad outcome.


You just described the entirety of US healthcare.


There’s a whole briar patch of patents around insulin production. I wonder where patent protection comes into play on the spectrum of making it for yourself to making it for friends and neighbors to running a production co-op with shared expenses. If you ask the patentholders, they’d probably say protection begins at conception.

Anyone know?


Er nurse here.

I really hope it works.

The problem with insulin (totally talking out of my asshole here) is that too much or too little can totally kill you. It’s pretty dialed in now with what’s available and the stuff we have more or less works but it’s one of the more locked down medications we have because a disease error can be so deadly. In most hospitals if I give IV insulin I need another nurse to double check the dose. In some places I have to do that even with SQ insulin.

Anyway I hope it works but it would have to fit nicely within the existing insulin ecosystem. I have no idea about the practicality of that but it sounds pretty uphill.


There’s also a collective trying to develop a minilab that can synthesize drugs for HIV, abortions, overdose, etc. Sounds like they’re most well known for the DIY EpiPen, though. I don’t know how realistic all of those things are, but it’s definitely exciting. Especially, at this moment, the abortion drugs.


The insulin glargine they are making is a ~24 hour slow release insulin. A faster acting insulin is required to cover meal carbs and used in pumps. This is just a shot across the bow of the pharmaceutical companies.


I don’t understand why any(non-rich) American would ever be on the side of a healthcare system who’s default stance is “If you are poor, please crawl into a corner and die.”

This might not be perfect, but at least it is an attempt to provide care.


Dual signoff (double checking the dose) is not because insulin is inhertently dangerous, but because insulin dosage errors are among the top 2 drug errors in US hospitals (IV heparin is the other, and they seem to change leads every now and then).

If you give twice the proper dose of amiodarone, it requires a lot more than a D10 drip to fix the trouble, but no one has to double check amiodarone!

The pharma companies are probably not scared at all. They are too rich to be afraid. I hope that changes.

The insulin problem in the US is highly complex and ragingly frustrating. Newer insulins with different onsets and different durations have been developed, and they are staggeringly expensive. They may also work better, and the modern insulin pumps and other such things are built around the modern drugs, making it crazy difficult to use the still sorta cheaply available "old fashioned"alternatives (NPH, etc).

Drug companies are making a lot of money, and have massively upped their prices, regardless of the outcome to the health of the US diabetics. Cf several asthma medicaitons for further examples.

Insulin demand appears inelastic, except that it isn’t and people die because they can’t afford insulin.


insulin currently costs me nothing as I live in the UK, yay NHS.

I am moving to Australia where I do need to pay for it - $40 for a 10ml vial. Still a heck of a lot better than the price gouging in the US.


Hey, America, how’s that for-profit medical system working for you?


They can standardize testing and quality control. Sometimes large companies also say “oops”. Or will farm work out to China or other countries where testing is not as rigorous.


A friend who’s knowledgeable about insulin pump open source shared this with me in response:

Lots of cool projects out there!


Wow, that is dicey proposition. The degree of quality control required for injectable meds is not something most folks will grasp. Injections bypass the main protection mechanisms of the body and give any slight contaminant free access to all the wet and yummy inner parts. Not to dissimilar from making penicillin. I can (and have) brewed up topically effective penicillin that might be useful in a “tech down” situation, but to make it into something I would be comfortable injecting? Holy shit and hell no. This sounds like a cool experiment, but to get to a safe product is a bridge too far for a home-brewed situation. I know the overall opinion of “Big Pharma” here, but keep in mind that, while the financial side of that business is born in hell and reeks of sulfur, the scientific side is incredibly intricate and detail oriented.