The secret to reducing the cost of insulin may be hidden in slime.
Connor Behr has been playing with Physarum polycephalum — a multinucleated, single-celled organism that’s more simply known as a slime mold — since he was 10 years old. Now a Brigham Young University-Pathways student, he’s followed a lifelong love of science to an interest in molecular biology and the pursuit of creating insulin more effectively.
“It was so cool that all these cells could be altered so easily with playing around with their genome,” Behr said.
His aunt died from breast cancer when Behr was 12. After watching how the loss devastated his family, he started thinking about how his interest could help people with health conditions.
“I wondered if I could apply the things I applied in molecular biology to discover what cancer was, eventually I could come up with a better way to treat it,” Behr said.
Behr had theorized that a slime mold could be used to produce insulin.
His plans for the insulin project were fast-tracked after Behr spoke to his mother around Christmas and she told him about the nation’s insulin crisis, where insulin prices have more than doubled in the past several years and about a quarter of those with diabetes are using a lower dosage than what they’re prescribed in order to make their supply last longer. His older sister, Kinsie, has had Type I diabetes for as long as Behr can remember and has expressed concerns to him about the complications that come along with the condition.
What’s developed since is the PhyR Project, an idea that would hopefully make the process of creating insulin for patients with diabetes cheaper, more efficient and would eventually allow patients to produce insulin within their own homes.
The slime mold can grow about a centimeter an hour and produces proteins in order to move. Behr plans to turn that protein-producing machine into an insulin-producing machine to essentially create insulin in bulk.
Behr self-funded his last project over the summer, where he put proteins into Physarum polycephalum. He’s made his own equipment, like a centrifuge made out of a vacuum motor and some PVC pipe, to save money.
He’s launched a GoFundMe to raise $25,000 to expedite the project. Behr said the funds would be used for a project to put the insulin gene into a slime mold and assure the mold can produce insulin the same way the molds have mass produced other proteins, along with fix any potential complications with the process.
If he’s unable to raise the money, Behr said his next step would be to approach investors or the three major companies that produce insulin in the United States.
With funding, he estimates he can prove the process works within two years, or within one, with proper funding. He hopes the certification process for his patent-pending method would overlap some of that time period.
Behr’s method mimics how the body makes insulin, which he hopes would mean that symptoms that go along with diabetes like deterioration of the eyes and foot pain could be reversed and avoided.
If it works, Behr sees an easier future for those with diabetes — including his sister.
“I hope it is able to give her a little hope with not having to deal with some of those things,” he said.