By Wil Dubois
The problem with proteins is that they digest quite nicely. That’s not a problem when the protein is a T-Bone steak, but what if the protein is a medicine? How, then, can we just take our medicine?
The solution for the last 95 years or so has been to bypass the digestive system altogether—a solution less than popular with patients because it involves…uh…needles.
Yes, I’m talking about insulin, arguably the best diabetes medication of all time. Insulin is natural, infinitely scalable, gets along well with other medications, and has few side effects. Really, the only thing wrong with insulin is that it freaks people out.
Hell, I’ll be the first to admit that sticking yourself with a needle is a highly unnatural act; though, frankly, finger-sticks hurt more. Modern insulin needles are ridiculously short, laughably small in diameter, and coated with slippery stuff that puts the best late-night TV omelet pans to shame. Our friend technology has made injecting insulin virtually painless.
So what’s the problem?
Well, the problem is that no one knows it’s painless until they take that first shot, and docs have a heck of a time getting people to that point. Hence, the quest for insulin sans needles. Inhaled insulin has been tried, failed miserably the first time, then, like the Phoenix, rose again… but that’s a topic for another day. As is a nasal snort insulin, the insulin patch, and Biodel’s dissolve-under-your-tongue insulin.
Today we’re focusing on the diabetes medication you want in your stock portfolio: THE INSULIN PILL. Why a pill? People like pills. Diabetes Pharma companies know this, and they’re spending billions to get us one.
But the challenges are daunting. If you drink insulin, it doesn’t get absorbed by your bloodstream. It gets digested. Like the T-bone steak. The trick to making an insulin pill work will be to get the digestive system to not digest it. Talk about trying to fool Mother Nature. So far, the most promising approaches seem to be technologies like those devised by Merrion: they armor-plate a pill to get it through the stomach, then use an absorption enhancer to try to move the med quickly out of the hostile environment of the intestines and into the bloodstream.
The problems to be solved remain huge, but science is closing in. Israel’s Ormed is leading the pack, and is now in advanced human trials with their pill that combines a protective coating with a dose massive enough that most of it can be digested- and there’s still enough left over to do the job. Things are looking good enough for the firm that manufacturing facilities for the drug are under construction.
Good news, right? Not so fast. Science is only half the battle. The other half is money.
This same approach was recently abandoned by insulin giant Novo Nordisk after pumping more than two billion dollars into their search for THE PILL. The company says they that due to the volume of insulin needed to make THE PILL work, it’s too expensive to produce compared to liquid insulins. They see no market, and they’ve dropped their program.
That’s technology- and commerce- in action.