Dr. Alborz Madhavi: Glucose-Responsive Insulin

In Game Changers 17, Health, Health Tech by Mary Kurek

Dr. Alborz Mahdavi is the founder and CEO of Protomer Technologies, a preclinical stage biotechnology company focused on innovations in diabetes and metabolic disease. He is the recipient of the JDRF international prize for developing glucose-responsive insulin. Protomer has received major grants including several from JDRF and is currently advancing a glucose-responsive insulin program and a smart glucagon program towards commercialization. Protomer’s team recently won first prize at the 2018 T1D Exchange Global Innovation Challenge. Prior to starting Protomer, Dr. Mahdavi completed his PhD as a Rosen Scholar at Caltech working with Prof. David Tirrell in chemistry and chemical engineering. His doctoral research won the Caltech’s Demetriade’s best PhD thesis prize, and he was a recipient of the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) postgraduate scholarship. He founded and was the chair of the bioengineering lecture series at Caltech and currently holds a guest position in the division of chemistry. Prior to this, Dr. Mahdavi was a member of Prof. Robert Langer’s group in the chemical engineering department at MIT, where he made novel tissue adhesive technologies that are now licensed to an MIT spinout called Gecko Biomedical.

Q & A with Alborz:

Q:  Can you explain in layman’s terms how your platform works to benefit diabetics?

A: Basically we have been developing molecular sensors that can sense sugar.  We’ve been working on this for several years; we’re still in the research and development phase.

Our first application is glucose-responsive insulin.  We’ve worked out the ability to attach sensor molecules to insulin so it can sense the sugar levels in the blood and adjust its activity throughout the day.  The second application is about glucagon where the molecules can sense a drop in the thresholds of sugar levels. Of course, the sensor has to be engineered differently.  Safety is the priority, so a lot of work goes into the safety engineering of the molecules and to avoid the chance of hypoglycemia. We have reached success now in animal studies.  This can have a huge impact on a diabetic’s day-to-day life, possibly reducing the insulin shots from 3x a day to maybe just 1-2 times. There will be tremendous improvements in quality of life with this technology. 

Q:  Can you share how this method competes or companions devices and other methods out on the market today?

A:  Our method has the possibility of replacing bulky devices for many diabetics and hopefully better blood glucose control, in the long run, it is a worry-free injection.  There will be many people who will only require a single injection a day. In other cases, the glucose-responsive insulin may augment or boost the activity of a pump or basal insulin.  On the glucagon side, there’s a lot of potential there as well. Glucagon is currently only used for rescue situations, you need to have the glucagon with you all the time. Imagine an injection that takes care of that, eliminates episodes of severe hypoglycemia and also probably helps you to inject more insulin to achieve your glycemic control without fear of hypoglycemia.  

Q:  Where is Protomer Tech at now with progress toward market?

Protomer winning first place, T1D Exchange 2018

A: We’ve demonstrated the molecules’ ability to function – to maintain normal levels in studies.  Now, we are fine-tuning molecules. We are quite comfortable spending more time upfront to get things right.  We want a success with the first release of this in order for it to impact on a mass level. A patient will use this for 20-30 years, so making small improvements now will pay off. There could be multiple generations of this method, but to get to that, the first generation needs to be a success.  

Q:  What do you call this kind of technology and are you the first to develop this?

A:  Smart Therapeutics.  We’ve taken the functionality of a device and built it into molecules.  It’s a high-tech version of today’s drugs. Before now, you’d inject the drug, then it was up to the body to do the rest and there would be no control of how that drug would work post-injection. With smart therapeutics, we are engineering drugs that can sense and dynamically activate when and as needed. We aim to be at the forefront of this technology. 

Q:  What’s are your challenges?

A:  Research and development is expensive so this work requires large financial resources. It is important to work with investors who have long-term vision and commitment to building a great company. On the grants and early support, we’ve had tremendous support from JDRF, they had the vision and the foresight before anyone else in this field. Their research team understands the potential impact – they are very outcome-oriented.  

We get emails every week from patients, even parents who want to support our work.  Our team is excited about the science and realizes the value to patients. We are talking with clinicians and patients and we need to continue doing that so that we can make this technology the most impactful.

Speaking of impact, I think this technology can also potentially provide huge cost savings for the healthcare sector. Many people today don’t have coverage for the newest pumps or glucose monitors and these devices can be very expensive. A glucose-responsive insulin injection that doesn’t require such devices can provide a huge cost saving.  Even from the payer’s side, there are benefits with fewer complications and lower cost of care  If you can just eliminate one hospital visit a year for each person and reduce emergency visits due to hypoglycemia, there would be significant cost savings as well as clear health benefits to the patients. 

Alborz’s Networking Interests:

  • Experts in diabetes, Clinicians (NIH, NIDDK) & diabeticians
  • Foundations and philanthropic organizations
  • Family Foundations and investors interested in this field


Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alborz-mahdavi-86328641/

Website:  https://www.protomer.com/