The Revolutionary Discovery of Insulin

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The Revolutionary Discovery of Insulin

Before the discovery and purification of insulin in 1921 by National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductees Frederick Banting, Charles Best and James Collip, diabetes, a chronic health condition that prevents the body from properly regulating levels of sugar in the body, was considered a death sentence.

The disease was prevalent even among ancient civilizations and was recognized by the Egyptians all the way back in 1550 B.C. Later in 250 B.C., the Greek physician Apollonius of Memphis gave the disease a name after its most obvious symptom: excessive urination. (In Greek, “diabetes” means “to go through.”)


A Cause and a Treatment

The following centuries brought little progress in terms of treating this illness. But in 1920, while reading a research paper about the pancreas, Banting realized that if he was somehow able to stop the gland from working, but keep a portion of it called the islets of Langerhans going, he could potentially find the elusive “active ingredient” known as insulin that could be used to combat the disease.

After receiving permission to use a laboratory at the University of Toronto, in May 1921, Banting and his assistant Best began their experiments. In August of that same year, they figured out how to extract insulin from the islets of Langerhans, and after giving the substance to their diabetic experimental dogs, the dogs’ blood sugar levels decreased.

However, the researchers soon realized that their insulin extractions were inconsistent in their purity. Eager to help, Collip, an experienced Canadian biochemist, joined the team and began working on the purification of insulin. The purified insulin was first tested on a 14-year-old with severe diabetes, and the injection lowered both his blood sugar and the ketones in his urine. 


Millions of Lives Saved

By 1923, insulin became commercially available and immediately began improving the lives of those suffering from diabetes. During this same year, Banting and John James Rickard Macleod (who supervised the research at the University of Toronto) received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery, and the prize money was shared with the other members of the team, Best and Collip.

Insulin has saved millions of lives around the world and has given individuals suffering from this disease the ability to live productive and happy lives.


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