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Melbourne insulin innovation set for global rollout

Friday, 11 January | By Michelle Hammond

Australia’s oldest medical research institute has applauded efforts to turn Melbourne into a biotech hub after making a landmark insulin discovery, set to be commercialised overseas.


The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, which is affiliated with the University of Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne Hospital, has made a landmark discovery about how insulin docks on cells.


This discovery could help in the development of improved types of insulin for treating both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.


Researchers have captured the way in which insulin uses the insulin receptor to bind the surface of cells. Binding is necessary for the cells to take up sugar from the blood as energy.


The research team was led by Associate Professor Mike Lawrence, Dr Colin Ward and Dr John Menting.


“Understanding how insulin interacts with the insulin receptor is fundamental to the development of novel insulins for the treatment of diabetes,” Lawrence said in a statement.


“Until now we have not been able to see how these molecules interact with cells.


“We can now exploit this knowledge to design new insulin medications with improved properties, which is very exciting.”


Because the institute has intellectual property protections over its discovery, it stands to benefit as the discovery is applied. Lawrence has been in talks with major international pharmaceuticals.


But according to a report by The Australian Financial Review, a start-up based in Ohio could be the best candidate.


“We have a contractor in the US, Professor Michael Weiss, who is actually chief scientific officer of a company called Thermalin,” Lawrence told the AFR.


“They are very interested in the designs of novel insulins.”


Lawrence said efforts to turn Melbourne into a biotech hub are working, describing Melbourne as “extremely conductive” to such high-level research.


The research team made use of the Australian Synchrotron, a national research facility located in Melbourne.


“If we did not have this fantastic facility in Australia and their staff available to help us, we would simply not have been able to complete this project,” Lawrence said.


Lawrence also attributes the project’s success to an international team of collaborators, including researchers from the University of Chicago, the University of York and the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry in Prague.


“Collaborations in this field are essential. No one laboratory has all the resources, expertise and experience to take on a project as difficult as this one,” he said.


“This discovery could conceivably lead to new types of insulin that could be given in ways other than injection, or an insulin that has improved properties or longer activity so that it doesn’t need to be taken as often.


“It may also have ramifications for diabetes treatment in developing nations, by creating insulin that is more stable and less likely to degrade when not kept cold.


“Our findings are a new platform for developing these kinds of medications.”