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Julie Kiefer

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

Feb 25, 2016 9:45 AM

(SALT LAKE CITY)—A University of Utah biochemist is one of four researchers worldwide to receive a grant from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) and the pharmaceutical company Sanofi US Services Inc. to develop glucose-responsive insulin to help millions of people with type 1 diabetes (T1D) maintain proper blood glucose levels. 

Danny Chou, Ph.D., USTAR assistant professor of biochemistry in the U School of Medicine and Diabetes and Metabolism Center investigator will receive $750,000 for three years to explore developing insulin that will deactivate once blood glucose drops below a certain level.

Millions of people with T1D strive to maintain proper glucose levels, which is critical to managing the disease. Those with the disease must monitor their blood sugar throughout the day and give themselves carefully calculated insulin shots if blood sugar gets too high.  But keeping proper glucose levels isn’t easy. If the right insulin dosage isn’t given, sugar levels can spike or drop and cause serious and immediate health threats, including comas. As evidence of the difficulty of maintaining proper blood sugar, it’s estimated that only one-third of people with T1D are able to achieve their long-term glucose targets. This means that millions of people with the disease who can’t maintain proper sugar levels at serious risk for short- and long-term health threats.

To mitigate the potential risks inherent to insulin dosing, Chou and colleague researchers created Ins-PBA-F, a long-lasting “smart” insulin that self-activates when blood sugar soars. Tests on mouse models for type 1 diabetes show that one injection works for a minimum of 14 hours, during which time it can repeatedly and automatically lower blood sugar levels after mice are given amounts of sugar comparable to what they would consume at mealtime.

Although more work remains to be done, a glucose-responsive insulin such as Chou is working on could reduce the dangers of people with T1D giving themselves the wrong insulin dosages as well as eliminate the need for booster shots to maintain proper glucose levels throughout the day. “My goal is to make life easier and safer for diabetics,” Chou says. “We are extremely grateful to JDRF and Sanofi for their support in our smart insulin work.” 

JDRF is committed to driving development of glucose-responsive insulin because such drugs may address the shortcomings and challenges for current insulin therapy, according to Sanjoy Dutta, Ph.D., the group’s assistant vice president of translational development. “JDRF is committed to driving development of FRIs for the T1D community, and we are excited to partner with Sanofi because their knowledge and expertise in insulin development will help drive these research projects toward success.”

The awards to Chou and three other researchers are part of an expansion of a research collaboration between JDRF and Sanofi US Services Inc., a subsidiary of Sanofi, a leading insulin manufacturer and global pharmaceutical company. JDRF and Sanofi will provide up to $4.6 million to accelerate innovation and development of GRIs. The selected projects will take different approaches to formulating and/or delivering GRIs. JDRF’s highly experienced scientific team spearheaded efforts to select the projects, and they will continue to provide guidance throughout the discovery and translational phases of research. Sanofi’s Research and Translational Medicine team will provide scientific expertise in insulin research and development to enhance successful transition of these research projects to human clinical development.

Along with the U’s Chou, the three other researchers funded include:

  • Pasadena, Calif.-based researcher Alborz Mahdavi, Ph.D., whose startup Protomer will develop insulin analogs with engineered glucose responsivity. Dr. Mahdavi is one of three winners of the 2013 JDRF GRI Grand Challenge Prize—an innovation competition 
  • Christoph Hagemeyer, Ph.D., of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, who will develop glucose-sensing nanoparticles 
  • North Carolina State University/UNC Chapel Hill researcher Zhen Gu, Ph.D., who, among other things, will develop GRI patches.


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