Diabetes

The Discovery of Insulin

It All Started with A Dog’s Pancreas

Diabetes is a complicated disease that can cause serious complications if left untreated. Before the discovery of insulin, the most effective treatment for diabetes was through strict dieting with low carbohydrate intake. However, people with diabetes were not expected to live long as severe diet restrictions caused patients to die from starvation. Thankfully, scientists have discovered and researched a way to treat and manage diabetes.

The Discovery

In 1889, Oskar Minkowski and Joseph von Mering, two German researchers, found that removing the pancreas gland from dogs resulted in symptoms associated with diabetes. In 1910, Sir Edward Albert Sharpey-Shafer suggested that a chemical was missing from the pancreas in people with diabetes. This chemical was called insulin.

Then, in 1921, Frederick Banting, a surgeon, and his assistant Charles Best figured out how to remove insulin from a dog’s pancreas. With the help of their colleagues, a more purified form of insulin was developed from pancreases of cattle, bringing hope and life for millions of people with diabetes.

The First Experiment

Leonard Thompson, the first person that received insulin. Picture on the left was without insulin and picture on the right was with insulin therapy. Although, many say is not the person in these pictures that are very famous.

In 1922, Leonard Thompson, a 14-year old boy from Toronto dying from diabetes, became the first person to receive an insulin injection. Within 24 hours, Leonard’s extremely high blood sugar levels dropped significantly to near-normal levels. The magical discovery of insulin spread rapidly around the world and in 1923, Banting and his colleague John Macleod received the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Large-scale production of insulin began shortly after.

Even though this insulin was used to treat diabetes and save millions of lives, it was found that insulin from cattle and pigs caused allergic reactions in many diabetic patients. In 1978, the first genetically engineered, synthetic “human” insulin was produced and by 1982, the first commercially available biosynthetic human insulin, Humulin, was sold.

Benefits of Insulin

Insulin therapy is a critical part of treatment for people with diabetes. The goal of insulin therapy is to replace the insulin the pancreas is not producing to keep blood sugar levels within normal range. Insulin therapy may also provide other benefits such as:

  • Reducing symptoms of high blood sugar such as fatigue and frequent urination
  • Decreasing risk of developing complications associated with diabetes
  • Decreasing pressure on pancreas to produce insulin
  • Allowing for flexible dosing
  • Simplifying further diabetes management

Types of Insulin

From decades of research, people with diabetes can now choose from a variety of insulin formulas and delivery methods such as pens and pumps. These decisions depend on preference, personal needs, and lifestyles. The insulin types are based on how quickly or how long they can control levels of blood sugar. These types include:

  • Bolus insulins, which are rapid-acting insulins that help to lower after-meal blood sugar levels. It begins to work 5-15 minutes after injection and continues to work for 2-4 hours.
  • Basal insulins, which are long-acting insulins that help to control blood sugar overnight and in between meals. It begins to work 4 hours after injection and can last for up to 24 hours.
  • Pre-mixed insulins, which combine both a bolus and basal insulin.

By choosing an insulin type and regimen that fits your needs and lifestyle, a person with diabetes can prevent complications and continue to live an active and healthy life.

Written by: Michelle YI, Dietetic Intern, Brooklyn College

Reviewed by: Nazirber De La Cruz, RDN, CDN, CDCES

Nazirber De La Cruz is a bilingual registered dietitian and nutritionist who believes that healthy and delicious food should be enjoyed at any stage in life and that an eating plan should fit and satisfy your needs and fit your lifestyle.

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