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Making diabetes easier to manage: U of T startup Munc-Key Therapeutics

Biotech entrepreneurs one of two U of T teams set for finals in major international competition

Repeated insulin injections can lead to complications (photo by Adrian Black via Flickr)

Diabetes is on the rise worldwide, and as its numbers grow, so does the need for more effective treatments.

One University of Toronto research group led by Patrick P. L. Lam, a PhD alumnus of physiology, is developing an answer to this chronic disease crisis in the form of a biotech business plan that’s attracted interest from international investors.

Lam’s company, Munc-Key Therapeutics, won out over more than 100 competitors in the world’s largest biotech entrepreneurship competition, OneStart, which offers bootcamp sessions, mentorship, pitch feedback and access to venture capital investors in the US and the UK. Now in the top 10 finalists, they vie in the finals on May 22 in San Francisco for $150,000 of funding, a year of lab space and business support.

Munc-Key Therapeutics  is one of two U of T teams competing in the finals of this challenge, the other being QSperm, which plans to commercialize a new approach to sperm sorting for fertility treatments in humans and animals. (Read more about QSperm)

Lam spoke with U of T News about his team’s plan for building a business around a therapy alternative for the millions living with type 2 diabetes.

What does your startup do?
Even though a number of existing type 2 diabetes therapies already treat symptoms of the disease, most patients end up having to inject insulin multiple times per day. This can lead to insulin resistance, obesity, and, sometimes, death.

We are developing a therapy for type 2 diabetes targeting Munc18b, a protein that we discovered can increase natural insulin release acutely and sustainably.

This therapy offers a solution to problems arising from current techniques—for instance, it can reduce the need for repeated insulin injections by empowering the body’s own natural insulin.

How will your startup change people’s lives?
Our therapy could benefit type 2 diabetes patients by improving the disease’s management, reducing the frequency of insulin injections and drug sensitization at high doses, and limiting the side effects such as drug toxicity and infection.

Type 2 diabetes is a growing epidemic affecting over 300 million patients worldwide and resulting in 4 million deaths annually. These numbers are expected to double by 2030 according to the World Health Organization. Treatment costs alone total over $24 billion dollars each year.

The latest statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control shows that 11.3 per cent of all Americans over the age of 20 have diabetes and 35 percent of the population has prediabetes.

We believe our drug molecule will work in concert with existing diabetes products, like metformin, while reducing associated secondary complications of insulin drug enhancers in the market when administering at high doses.

How did you arrive at your concept?
As part of my graduate research at University of Toronto, in 2012 I discovered that Munc18b regulates secretion and release of insulin vesicles by a mechanism called “granule-granule fusion” in the pancreatic β-cells. That opened up exciting new avenues for tackling deficiencies in insulin secretion.

Our current data confirms that a possible add-on therapeutic could be developed to augment the treatment of type 2 diabetes through increased and sustained insulin release endogenously. We’re in the process of patenting this in the US.

How has the community at U of T helped in developing your product?
Professor Herbert Gaisano, a leading diabetes researcher at the University of Toronto and staff gastroenterologist at the University Health Network, has been instrumental in coaching us to develop our concept. He’s committed his mentorship to our team as we transition our technology into the proof of concept stages.

I would also like to acknowledge the dedication of my team, including U of T’s Claire Huang, Laurent CaudrelierMia Shi and Preethy Prasad; as well as Alicia Sikiric and Richard Heins.

What most excites you about your startup?
Our team shares a passion for knowledge translation in science and business. We’re motivated entrepreneurs who want to transform a lab’s bench-top idea into a medicine for tomorrow and positively influence the lives of the millions of individuals suffering from diabetes by empowering their body’s natural insulin.