Todd Zion PhD '04 Image: MIT News/Rob Matheson
Todd Zion PhD ’04
Image: MIT News/Rob Matheson

In the early 2000s, Todd Zion PhD ’04 created a self-regulating form of insulin that he believed could transform the lives of diabetics, eliminating their need to check blood-sugar levels multiple times per day.

Zion recounts his experience developing a new drug in a recent New York Times Magazine article. He hit upon his discovery in MIT’s Nanostructured Materials Research Laboratory through old-fashioned bench work, trying one method after another to find something that worked. This method had fallen out of favor with pharmaceutical companies during the genomics revolution of the 1990s. With the advent of rapid DNA sequencing, companies shifted their resources away from more traditional methods of trial and error to focus on target-based research—identifying a malfunctioning gene, finding the protein coded by that gene, and then finding the chemical entity to correct the malfunction.

Zion determined the best solution was to chemically engineer the insulin molecule. His invention, which he dubbed SmartInsulin, won MIT’s annual Entrepreneurship Competition in 2003. He licensed his drug through the MIT Technology Licensing Office and used his prize money to cofound a new company, SmartCells. [Related on MIT News: “The half-billion-dollar idea“]

At SmartCells, Zion set to work perfecting his insulin. His efforts attracted the drug manufacturer Merck, which bought Zion’s company in 2010. In early 2014, Merck announced that it plans to begin human trials of SmartInsulin by the end of the year. If trials are successful, the new drug could be on the market in 2021.

Zion looks forward to seeing his drug available to the public, not only because the hope it offers diabetics, but also because it proves the basic research model works. As he put it to the New York Times, “You have to become the master of something no one ever knew existed before.”

Read more about Zion’s experience discovering SmartInsulin, and the challenges researchers face when developing new drugs.

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