Insulete Co-founder on Hopes, Challenges for Diabetes Gene Therapy

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

[Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories on physicians at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics who have become full- or part-time entrepreneurs.]

For almost 35 years Hans Sollinger has been searching for ways to combat Type 1 diabetes, a chronic and potentially deadly disease in which a patient’s immune system destroys the insulin-producing cells of his pancreas.

Sollinger attended graduate and medical school in his native Germany before moving to the U.S. in 1975 to do research and a surgical residency at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, where he continues to work as a transplant surgeon, professor, and researcher.

He says that by the time he completed his residency in 1980, he knew he wanted to find a way to help patients with Type 1 diabetes—which had claimed the life of his adoptive brother, Max, five years earlier—live longer, healthier lives.

“For a surgeon, the obvious thing was pancreas transplantation,” he says. “That’s still the only way to cure diabetes.”

So in 1982, Sollinger began performing pancreas transplants. By 1995, he says he had performed about 500 of the procedures, some of which also involved a kidney transplant.

However, Sollinger says, “Doing a few pancreas transplants doesn’t make a dent in the disease.” Indeed, 1.25 million Americans currently have Type 1 diabetes, and 40,000 new cases are diagnosed annually, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Yet only about 1,200 of them receive pancreas transplants each year, because the risks and costs (upwards of $200,000) associated with the surgery and the difficulty of finding donor organs. Sollinger envisioned a treatment that would be accessible to a much larger population than pancreas transplants. “I felt that perhaps gene therapy would be the way to go,” he says.

While the promise of gene therapy is vast, the practice has a long history of failure, particularly at the human-trial stage. Just a few gene therapy treatments have been approved in Asia and Europe, and none have reached the market in the U.S. However, that could reportedly change as soon as next year.

Sollinger acknowledges that going the gene therapy route was “risky” and perhaps somewhat “naïve,” but he believed it was the direction in which the scientific world was headed.

In 2004, Sollinger co-founded Insulete—the name is a portmanteau of “insulin” and “obsolete”—a Madison, WI-based startup that is seeking to commercialize a gene therapy designed to coax a patient’s liver cells into producing insulin. The hope is that the liver could take up the work of the damaged pancreas, sparing patients from having to inject themselves with insulin multiple times a day to regulate their blood glucose levels, Sollinger says.

From 2010 to 2014, Insulete performed experiments in which researchers injected diabetic rodents with a DNA sequence patented by the company, Sollinger says. The investigators then monitored the animals to determine how long they were able to control their glucose levels, he adds. Sollinger says some of the animals went as long as 15 months with no decline in insulin production.

Now, the company plans to progress to experiments on larger animals. Sollinger says that Insulete is preparing a clinical trial in diabetic dogs, with plans to start testing the gene therapy in five or six canines later this year. The startup’s collaborators include Généthon, a French research organization whose mission is to advance gene therapy treatments, and the UW School of Veterinary Medicine.

“Dogs have almost the identical Type 1 diabetes as [humans] do,” Sollinger says. “The experts … Next Page »

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