Media Contacts

Julie Kiefer

Communications Specialist, University of Utah Health Sciences Office of Public Affairs
Phone: 801-587-1293

Jun 09, 2014 2:34 PM

Danny Chou

For patients with type 1 diabetes (T1D), the need to endure multiple, uncomfortable insulin injections daily, and to be ever vigilant of their blood sugar, is bad enough. Perhaps worse, is that the very drug on which their life depends, can create complications of its own. Improper insulin dosing can cause blood sugar levels to remain too high (hyperglycemia) potentially leading to blindness and kidney failure, or plummet too low (hypoglycemia) which in the very worst cases can result in coma or death.

Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative has launched a new research team, the Center for Chemical Biology, to address problems such as these. The center is committed to discovering small molecules and developing drugs that alter biological processes, and enhance patient lives.

“The vision for the center is to improve clinical outcomes and fuel Utah’s economy by developing novel pharmacologic therapies,” explained Dean Li, M.D., Ph.D., vice dean for research at the U of U School of Medicine.

The first investigator to join the new center is Danny Hung-Chieh Chou, Ph.D., who was recruited from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to the department of biochemistry at the University of Utah. Chou is developing novel forms of injectable insulin to make life better for patients with T1D.

“I am very interested in developing therapeutics that impact human disease and can be translated to the clinical world,” said Chou. “I look forward to collaborating with scientists and clinicians at the University of Utah School of Medicine and hospital to make that happen.”

For many diabetics, the novel insulin being developed by Chou may sound like something they could only dream of. It will only need to be administered once per day, and possibly as little as once each week. What’s more the drug will only be active when needed, when blood sugar levels are high, and because it will be fast-acting, it will lower blood sugar to safe levels quickly. The combination of characteristics will give the new insulin an unprecedented agility, greatly reducing the risk of dangerous blood sugar fluctuations.

“Danny is someone who is going to change how we think about diabetes,” commented Chris Hill, Ph.D., co-chair of biochemistry. “His smart insulin is brilliant in concept. He is a world leader in this approach to the problem.”

Chou’s background in chemistry and organic chemistry, and pre- and postdoctoral research in the field of diabetes, gives him a distinct advantage. His synthetic chemistry approach is radically different from other developers of insulin analogs who tend to utilize biological methodologies. While they are running into problems with their products degrading, or generating unwanted immune responses, Chou has managed to supersede these issues, and has obtained spectacular preliminary results that suggest his product will work as promised.

Chou’s advances comes on the heels of a new partnership between an interdisciplinary diabetes research group at the U of U and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the leading charitable supporter of T1D research. By joining forces, the groups intend to grow T1D diabetes research and treatment in Utah.

“I predict there will be a synergistic effect between the efforts at USTAR and the diabetes initiative at the university,” said Chou. “Together we can bring new products to market that will improve the quality of life and the ultimate outcome for people with diabetes.”

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The Utah Science Technology and Research initiative (USTAR) is a long-term, state-funded investment to strengthen Utah’s “knowledge economy.” Funded in March 2006 by the State legislature, USTAR is based on three program areas. The initiative invests in world-class innovation teams with researchers recruited from around the globe. Those researchers are employed in innovation teams located in research facilities at the University of Utah (U of U) and Utah State University (USU). Based on best practices of other states in technology economic development, USTAR has built on unique Utah strengths to forge a new national benchmark in innovation and growth. In addition, USTAR operates outreach teams across the state to help entrepreneurs and existing companies commercialize new technology and access the resources available at higher education institutions. USTAR regional outreach has conducted hundreds of projects across the state, helping new companies launch and get new products to market.