The Gift of Life: The History of Insulin

In a perfect world, your pancreas manufactures insulin which allows your cells to receive sugar (glucose) from your blood stream. But when your pancreas is not functioning in a healthy way and there is insufficient insulin in the bloodstream, your cells can't access the glucose. In effect, the cells will starve without adequate insulin performing it’s important role.

This state of affairs can lead to blurred vision, fatigue, a tendency towards infection, and delayed healing of wounds.  A person in this situation can experience numbness and tingling in the extremities and may be more thirsty than normal.

When this condition continues without treatment, cells begin to access a different energy source, which is body fat. Eventually, the liver can begin to manufacture chemicals called ketones, which can damage and destroy cells. Unless things change, illness and coma can result.

Insufficient insulin also can lead to diabetes. A hundred years ago, diabetes was often a death sentence. The quality of life and life expectancy of diabetics began to improve when scientist Frederick G. Banting and medical student Charles H. Best began to study the pancreas and its islets of Langerhans, searching for an answer to the diabetes puzzle.

They produced a pancreatic extract at the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada in 1921. They eventually learned that this pancreatic extract would regulate blood sugar levels.  Because the extract came from the islets of Langerhans, they named their product isletin. It would later be called insulin.

Banting and Best were later joined by Professor J. Macleod and J.B. Collip. In 1922, their insulin was used on a 14-year-old boy with diabetes, by the name of Leonard Thompson. Thompson was at the point that he was dying of his condition.

Though Thompson initially had an allergic reaction to the first injection of insulin, after the scientists made improvements on it, the second injection changed Thompson's life.

Ever since, insulin injections have been life-altering for diabetics. Banting and Macleod each received the Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine. Banting and Macleod shared their prizes with Best and Collip for their help in discovering this vital treatment. The University of Toronto bought the patent for insulin for a dollar.

Improvements on insulin were made in 1936, when a method of slowing insulin's release into the bloodstream was found. In 1950, insulin that was faster-acting was developed. During the 1970s, researchers attempted to make their insulin more similar to natural insulin, able to release in small amounts during the day, and increasing when the recipient eats.

Up until the 1980s, insulin was taken from animal's pancreases. Pigs' and cattle's insulin has a similar chemical structure to ours. Development of synthetic insulin was a great stride ahead, giving diabetics greater opportunity to live normal lives.



What is insulin?

Discovery of insulin


Type 1 Diabetes And The Isles Of Langerhans

Tags: blood glucose,blood sugar,insulin,type 1 diabetes,sugar,pancreas,insulin production,pancreatic extract

Category: Featured Articles,Overview