Picture: Charles Best (left) and Sir Frederick Banting (right) at the University of Toronto in August 1921. (Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto).
In November 1920, Canadian surgeon Frederick Banting began exploring how insulin could be extracted from islet cells in the pancreas.
He started working at the University of Toronto, with support from Professor J. J. R. Macleod, a physiology professor and global expert in diabetes.
Macleod provided Banting with a laboratory and assigned Charles Best, a promising research student, to assist Banting with his experiments.
In May 1921, Banting and Best began removing the pancreas from research dogs and performed pancreatic duct ligation to separate insulin-producing cells from the rest of the pancreas.
By November, they successfully extracted insulin from the pancreas and successfully treated a dog with diabetes for 70 days.
The promising results allowed for human trials to be considered for the first time. Biochemistry professor James Collip was introduced to purify the insulin, allowing it to be safely administered to people living with diabetes.
First person to be treated with insulin
On 11 January 1922, Leonard Thompson became the first person to be treated with insulin.
Leonard was 14 and had been living with diabetes for two and half years before being admitted to Toronto General Hospital. Like many diabetes patients, he was severely ill and weighted just 65 pounds.
Leonard had been placed on a “starvation diet” by his doctors, which restricted him to just 450 calories a day.
The first dose of insulin administered to Leonard lowered his blood glucose levels by around a quarter and reduced the level of glucose in his urine.
However, due to impurities in the insulin, an abscess developed around the injection site and Leonard’s ketone levels remained dangerously high.
Collip continued to purify the insulin and achieved success within weeks.
On 23rd January, Leonard received his second dose of insulin.
Within 24 hours, his blood glucose levels dropped by around 77% and his physical appearance improved remarkedly.
Just three months later, he “looked better” and “felt stronger” and was discharged from hospital.
Picture: Leonard Thompson a few years after he became the first person to receive insulin. He lived for 13 years on insulin and died April 20, 1935 at the age of 27. His death was due to broncho-pneumonia and complications from diabetes. (Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto).
Pictures: James Collip (left) as a graduate student in 1914 and Teddy Ryder (right) sometime after he received insulin. (Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto).
Leonard was not the only success story. Five-year-old Teddy Ryder was among the first group of patients treated by Banting and Best’s insulin at Toronto General Hospital in 1922.
One of the youngest patients to be treated with insulin, Teddy weighed only 26 pounds and could hardly move before the breakthrough in Toronto.
With access to insulin, Teddy made a remarkable recovery, and lived for a further 77 years.
The remarkable success of the first human trials led to rapid clinical deployment of insulin therapy across the globe.
In 1923, the American pharmaceutical company Lilly began to ship the first commercial stock of insulin across North America.
Just one month later, Nordisk Insulin Laboratory started producing insulin in Denmark and began shipping vials globally.
The incredible work of Banting, Best, Macleod and Collip marked the end of diabetes as a fatal condition. In recognition of their achievement, Banting and Macleod were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
They divided their prize money equally with Best and Collip, who had both been overlooked despite their significant contributions.
Finally, people with diabetes had access to a treatment which could improve the quality and prolong the duration of their life by decades.
The development of insulin had only just begun. Over the next few decades, the quality of insulin and how it was administered improved significantly.
The introduction of synthetic human insulin in 1982 was a significant milestone in the treatment of diabetes. It allowed for insulin to be genetically engineered in laboratories, ending the practice of extracting insulin from cattle and pigs.
Picture: Sir Frederick Banting at this desk in 1926 (Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto).
The discovery remains one of the most important medical breakthroughs in history. To the present day, millions of people still rely on insulin. It ignited a century of development in diabetes care and has undoubtedly saved millions of lives.
At DRWF, we think it is time for the next big breakthrough; our ultimate goal is to find a cure for diabetes. In pursuit of this, we fund some of the best and brightest diabetes researchers, whose work improves our understanding of diabetes. Our funded research explores new treatments; develops self-management strategies; and seeks out potential cure pathways.
The dedication and commitment of our diabetes research community is second to none.
Through our awareness and educational support programmes, we enable people to learn more about diabetes, providing the tools to motivate, empower and engage in a pro-active approach to good self-care.
Every day, we do our utmost to ensure that people living with diabetes are ‘staying well until a cure is found…’
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