Insulin History
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** Insulin History Timeline **

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The History Of Insulin From 1920 To 2008

For thousands of years becoming a diabetic was a death sentence and this may still have been the case today if Dr. Frederick Banting had not discovered the usefulness of Insulin; before this the only way to control diabetes was through a diet that was extremely low in carbohydrates and sugar and high in fat and protein; most diabetics on this type of diet lived for about a year, if they didn't starve to death first.

Back in 1889 scientists Oskar Minkowski and Josef von Mering discovered by chance, whilst studying the metabolism of fat, that removing a dog's pancreas caused diabetes in the animal; further research suggested that the pancreas had at least two functions, to produce digestive juices and to secrete a substance that regulated blood sugar.

In 1869 Paul Langerhans discovered that within the pancreatic tissue that produced digestive juices, there were clusters of cells whos function was unknown and in 1893 Gustav Laguess suggested that these cells, which he named the Islets of Langerhans, produce the glucose regulating substance later known as Insulin.

Then back in October 1920 the Canadian Surgeon Frederick Banting started work on a idea that could possibly explain why people die from diabetes; he thought that in diabetics the pancreatic juices were destroying one of the substances that were being produced by the islets of Langerhans.

Banting wanted to stop the pancreas from working but keep the islets of Langerhans working in order to locate the elusive substance and in 1921, with the help of Charles Best and 10 dogs, they surgically stopped the flow of nourishment to each of the dog's pancreas by tying up the pancreatic ducts, to stop them creating digestive juices; they left them this way for several weeks, this act destroyed the digestive cells and left thousands of pancreatic islets; this approach, which would now be considered barbaric, was successful because even though the pancreatic islets produce other hormones like glucagon and somatostatin, they are not produced in the same quantities as Insulin.

They later removed the pancreas from each dog, chopped them up and froze them in a saline mixture; when they were half frozen the pancreas pieces were ground up and filtered; they named this pancreatic extract isletin; they then injected some isletin into one of the dogs, which now had diabetes, due to having had its pancreas removed and the dog's blood glucose level dropped and it became healthier and stronger; the dog was given several injections a day and remained free of diabetic symptoms; this experiment was carried out on the other dogs and all of the results were the same apart from problems caused by the purity of the mixture; they had discovered and successfully administered Insulin.

Shortly after this success, several researchers, including James Collip, from the same lab worked on the purification and production of isletin for human diabetics and they renamed it Insulin from the latin word 'insula' meaning island;

First Human Test

By late 1921, the team had conclusively proved that diabetes was a condition brought on by insulin deficiency and it was time to test the new substance, that they had derived from a cow’s pancreas, on humans, and so in 1922 the first Insulin tests were carried out on Leonard Thompson, a 14 year old diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1919.

The health of the test subject a Mr. Leonard Thompson improved on a daily basis meaning the tests were successful and the Insulin extract worked; however, the discovery and use of Insulin is not a cure for diabetes; though, it did give immediate hope to many seriously ill diabetics and still does, enabling those with diabetes to lead fairly normal lives instead of dying shortly after being diagnosed.

In 1923, Banting and Macleod were jointly awarded the Nobel prize for Medicine; Banting, however, felt that the prize should have been shared between himself and Best, so he gave credit to his assistant by sharing his cash reward with him; Macleod did the same with Collip; Banting and his team patented their insulin extract, but gave away all rights to the University of Toronto, which later used the income to fund further research into insulin; soon after, medical firm Eli Lilly began large scale production of the extract.

While Best continued to have a successful career, Banting’s life was cut tragically short when he died in a plane crash at the age of 41; but his legacy lives on, and millions of people with diabetes worldwide continue to live long and healthy lives as a result of his team’s discovery.

In 1963, researchers managed to produce insulin chemically in a laboratory, but they could not make enough of it, for it to be viable; at that time, insulin was still extracted from pigs and cattle and though animal insulin worked well, it was not an exact match with the human hormone and sometimes caused adverse reactions, such as skin rashes.

In 1977, researchers succeeded in manufacturing human insulin, by inserting the genes that code for human insulin into bacteria and yeast cells; this allowed its production on a much bigger scale; the resulting commercial product, brand named Humulin, revolutionised the treatment of diabetes as it caused fewer side effects.

Since then the production and supply of Insulin has been greatly improved and high quality Insulin is now available to all diabetics in civilised countries; the first Insulin preparations, known as bovine and porcine Insulin, came from the pancreases of slaughtered cows and pigs, which was purified, bottled and sold and works very well for the majority of diabetics; today human and synthetic Insulins, which are genetically engineered and structurally identical to that made by a functioning human pancreas are also used.

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