A Medical Discovery That Changed The World



This year marks the 90th year celebrating the discovery of insulin, the hormone released by the pancreas that helps regulate glucose metabolism in the body.  Without insulin, blood sugar levels rise, resulting in a condition known as diabetes.   There are two types of patients with diabetes:  Type 1 diabetics fail to produce insulin; and Type 2 diabetics have resistance to or insufficient production of insulin.  Typically, Type 1 diabetes occurs in children, and is known as juvenile diabetes.  Prior to the discovery of insulin in 1922, a juvenile diabetes diagnosis was virtually a death sentence.  Survival was measured in months not years.

Based on his conviction that a cure for diabetes would be found within soluble extracts of the endocrine pancreas, Dr. Frederick Banting, a surgeon at the University of Toronto, and Charles Best, a medical student working as an assistant in Banting’s laboratory, performed experiments that led to the purification of insulin, and its successful use in the first human clinical trials.  Assisting Banting and Best in the purification process of insulin was Dr. Bertram Collip, a biochemist working at the University of Toronto at that time.  Professor John Macleod, Head of the Department of Physiology, was responsible for overseeing the entire insulin project at the University of Toronto.  In January of 1922, the first patient in the world to receive insulin therapy was a 14-year-old boy, Leonard Thompson, who was suffering from the end-stage effects of the disease.  Interestingly, the third patient in the world to receive insulin therapy was Elizabeth Hughes, the daughter of famed U.S. presidential candidate and Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes.  In 1923, Elizabeth Hughes came to Toronto to be treated by Banting.  With the discovery of insulin, Elizabeth Hughes lived a long and productive life, and died at age 74, having received more than 42,000 injections of this life-saving hormone over her lifetime.

Following the use of insulin therapy in early clinical trials in Toronto, news of its success spread around the world.  In 1923, soon after the discovery of insulin for diabetes, Banting and Macleod received the Nobel Prize in Physiology.  It is interesting to note that the length of time from the discovery of insulin to its use in clinical trials was rather short – about two years.  And the discovery of insulin must be considered as one of the greatest scientific discoveries in all of medicine.  Today, most new drugs take about 10-15 years to reach clinical trials and to undergo regulatory review.  It is hoped that in the future drugs and treatments which hold potential promise to improve the lives of patients with disease processes, like diabetes, can receive expedited review and testing for the greater good of humanity.

2 Responses to “A Medical Discovery That Changed The World”

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