Researchers in Singapore are working to improve the affordability and accessibility of recombinant insulin by optimizing downstream production processes. Zhang Wei, PhD, from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), is among the scientists working to develop a new process for insulin purification, with the aim of improving efficiencies and reduce costs.

“Producing [recombinant] insulin is very traditional in process and technologies, so hopefully new technology will come along to reduce costs,” she explains, adding that insulin production currently consists of numerous small steps that involve lengthy processing time and high cost.

Yet, the prevalence of diabetes is set to rise worldwide and the World Health Organization’s Global Diabetes Compact, published last year, has also called for more affordable and comprehensive treatments.

Zhang explains that each of the many steps in recombinant insulin production can be improved. As an example, she says, a majority of recombinant insulin is produced in E. coli inclusion bodies. An area she’s been working on is improving the inclusion body wash protocol to remove as many host impurities as possible.

Another research project is looking into changing the purification columns during downstream processing to remove impurities as efficiently as possible. The team is also looking to reduce toxic organic sediment production and the environment impact of the manufacturing process.

Insulin production can also be made more efficient, Zhang says, by combining two steps in the current process into a single step. She also argues that the upstream processing can be made more efficient by increasing E. coli productivity.

Speaking about the industry applications of her research, Zhang points out that her work is currently at the research stage. “It takes a long time to translate from lab research to validation by an industry partner,” she says.

Zhang explains that she has not seen many academic papers published on improving recombinant insulin production processes but believes big pharmaceutical companies may also be working in this area.

Her paper on downstream processing of recombinant insulin was published in Bioresources and Bioprocessing last year.