The amazing history of insulin

Monday, 29 April 2019

The modern age has given us many amazing technological advances – flight, phones, the internet and mobile technologies have changed the way we all live. But for people living with diabetes the discovery of insulin in 1921 and its subsequent commercial availability would have to rank as their number 1.

Before insulin was discovered, there wasn’t much doctors could do to help people diagnosed with diabetes. Very strict diets could buy a few extra years but couldn’t save them. So the discovery of insulin was a life-saving breakthrough. To find out how it exactly happened we need to go back around 100 years or so.…

Early researchers found that when the pancreas gland was removed from dogs, the animals developed symptoms of diabetes and died soon afterward. This led to the understanding that the pancreas was the site where insulin was produced.

In 1921, Frederick Banting and Charles Best figured out how to remove insulin from a dog’s pancreas, and use it to keep another dog with severe diabetes alive for 70 days. The dog only died when there was no more extracted insulin available. With this success, the researchers, along with colleagues J.B. Collip and John Macleod, went a step further and developed a more refined and pure form of insulin from the pancreases of cattle.

In January 1922, Leonard Thompson, a 14-year-old boy dying from diabetes in a Toronto hospital, became the first person to receive an injection of insulin. Within 24 hours, Leonard’s dangerously high blood glucose levels dropped to near-normal levels.

The news about insulin quickly spread around the world. In 1923, Banting and Macleod received the Nobel Prize in Medicine and soon after, the medical firm Eli Lilly started large-scale production of insulin.

In the decades that followed a variety of slower-acting insulins, were developed. The first being introduced by Novo Nordisk in 1936.

For many years insulin from cattle and pigs was used to treat diabetes and saved millions of lives, but it caused allergic reactions in many patients. The first genetically engineered, synthetic “human” insulin was produced in 1978 using E. coli bacteria to produce the insulin. In 1982 Eli Lilly went on to sell the first commercially available biosynthetic human insulin.

Insulin now comes in many forms, from regular human insulin identical to what is produced by the body, to ultra-rapid and ultra-long acting insulins. Thanks to many decades of research, people with diabetes can choose the formula and way to take their insulin that best suits their personal needs and lifestyle.

While scientists and researchers are still working hard to find a cure for diabetes one thing we know today is that insulin has been a medical marvel and a real life saver for people living with diabetes.

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