Dr. Michael Weiss (1975, OH) quickly realized that in order to get to the future—a future with advances in insulin that would benefit the poor and most vulnerable—he would have to go back to school. With a MD, PhD (both from Harvard University), and a full professorship already in hand, Weiss took a two-year sabbatical from teaching biochemistry at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) School of Medicine to earn an MBA at the CWRU Weatherhead School of Management.
Why business school? Weiss had already developed a thermostable insulin for the treatment of diabetes, but to achieve its widespread use in the developing world, where refrigeration is hard to come by, he knew he needed a market in the Western world to finance his product in poor countries. “You can’t have a charitable mission in the developing world without having a sensible business plan in affluent societies that makes the whole enterprise possible,” says Weiss.
This nonlinear approach to science and service defines Dr. Weiss’s career. Against his parents’ wishes, the young Weiss took a year off from medical and graduate school to travel the world as a Harvard Sheldon Traveling Fellow. He was surprised to learn about people with Type 1 diabetes who needed to keep their insulin cool but had no access to refrigeration. In Africa and Asia, patients buried their insulin in clay pots to keep it from degrading. By the time he returned to his MD-PhD studies, the twenty-four-year-old Weiss thought he might be able to engineer an ultra-heat-stable insulin." And he has done just that, launching a for-profit company to take the product to market. The company, Thermalin Diabetes, is supported in part by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). In the US and Europe ultra-heat-stable insulin products may be used in prefilled patch pumps or in innovative implanted long-term pumps at body temperature, controlled remotely and requiring refilling only every three or four months.
Weiss and his colleagues are now seeking to develop a rapid-acting and self-regulating “smart insulin" that detects when levels of the sugar-storing hormone may be too high or low and makes automatic corrections, thereby avoiding the debilitating, even life-threatening, effects of hypoglycemia. Since the 1970s, incremental advances in insulin research have improved and saved lives, but a smart insulin would be transformational, says Weiss. Such a therapeutic protein analog (designated a glucose-responsive insulin; GRI), once developed, could be injected under the skin, and then used by the body when needed and in the correct quantity. Smart insulin would reshape itself into the correct form (necessary for binding to cell receptors) before entering the blood stream.
Weiss is not alone in his quest. In 2013, he and his team at CWRU received a $1 million grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust to conduct preclinical research into GRI technologies. Weiss was recently awarded an additional $2.6 million grant from Helmsley to advance his smart insulin work. What Helmsley and Weiss envision is that GRIs will radically improve the health and lives of patients (reducing the short-term risk of hypoglycemia and long-term risks of diabetes complications) and in the process save many millions of dollars in associated healthcare costs, both in the U.S. and abroad. Roughly two million people in the United States suffer from Type 1 diabetes, which typically strikes children and young adults. According to the World Health Organization, the number of cases is rising in the developed and developing worlds. GRIs may also find application in Type 2 diabetes, also increasing as part of a global pandemic of obesity.
Weiss’s journey toward this goal has surprised him. His reentry into higher education as a student was “eye-opening." Though much older than his fellow students in the MBA program, Weiss “felt much younger” after he graduated. He found that almost every course added to his ability to conduct research and contribute to his company. He says with a smile, however, that his statistics course was not necessarily new information for him.
“I was very surprised about the more personal side of the MBA courses,” he says. He found that business classes helped him to be more thoughtful about his teaching and leadership style and about assessing his weaknesses and strengths. “The courses were helpful not just to launch my business. I’m a better teacher now." He would like to see more integration of business classes into other degree programs. “These courses would be valuable for anyone, regardless of their major or field of expertise,” says Weiss. “I wish I had developed these skills earlier in my career.”
About his back-to-school days, Weiss says that “it was a shock to take exams again.” One of his most memorable (and worst) experiences will be familiar to most undergraduates. “I accidentally arrived two hours late to a three-hour exam. I had to do the entire exam in 60 minutes because the student TA wouldn’t let me go past the exam’s end time.”
Weiss, who also serves on the Presidential Scholars Foundation Board of Directors, has fond memories of his National Recognition Week. “It was fabulous! It was one of the most joyous weeks of my life. We had an incredible peer group." He has stayed in touch with a handful of Scholars from his class over the years, and his family has served as a “home away from home” for the children of Scholars, as have they for his children. Weiss and his classmates met President Ford, who was “quite gracious,” attended receptions in the Rose Garden of the White House and in the penthouse of the State Department, and attended a concert at Wolf Trap. “I even got to meet one of my heroes, Senator Hubert Humphrey,” says Weiss.
When asked what his personal motto is, Weiss refers to words of wisdom from Geoffrey Stone, former Provost of the University of Chicago: “Whatever you are studying, strive to change the world’s perspective on a problem."
About Dr. Michael A. Weiss, MD, PhD, MBA
Weiss is a distinguished research professor and the chairman of biochemistry at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. He has more than 150 publications, including four pertaining to insulin analog designs that were highlighted as “Papers of the Week” by the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Since 2008, Weiss has co-led an international collaborative team to dissect the structural mechanisms underlying the function of insulin. He served a five-year term as chair of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) Board of Scientific Counselors. Weiss earned an AB, summa cum laude in physics, an MD, summa cum laude, and a PhD in biophysics (all from Harvard University), and an MBA from the Case Western Reserve University. He was a visiting scholar at Trinity College, Oxford University (1980-81), completed a residency in internal medicine at the Brigham Women’s Hospital (1985-1988), and directed the Center for Molecular Oncology as a professor of chemistry, biochemistry and medicine at the University of Chicago (1994-1999).