Insulin: Its History and Future

Learn about the invention of the life-saving drug insulin, and what the future holds in store.

We all know that without insulin, those of us with type 1 diabetes would slowly starve to death.  Our bodies don't make insulin, so we can't process the food we eat properly and get energy and nutrients from it.  In this article, I'll talk about the development of insulin, as well as how insulin is used right now in diabetes treatment.  At the end, I'll talk a little about the future of insulin and type 1 diabetes.

History of Insulin and Diabetes

Before insulin became available, children routinely were fed a cup of cooking oil a day because that was thought to help them process food. The results were as you imagine.

Elliot Joslin diabetesElliot Joslin, a U.S. pioneer in diabetes treatment (photo courtesy of National Library of Medicine).

The archives of Joslin Diabetes Center, where Elliott P. Joslin, MD, was one of the first Americans to use insulin, are replete with before and after pictures of children who looked at death’s door one month, and months later appeared to be healthy normal children.

Insulin was greeted as a cure for diabetes; however, today we know that it can only control the disease, and with extended life comes a long list of long-term complications.

Diabetes was first described and named by Aratacus of Cappadocia in Asia Minor in the first century AD. The name came from the analogy that diabetics' urine was like water coming through a siphon.

The sweet smell of the urine of diabetics was first noted in the 17th century by the Oxford physician, Thomas Willis, but ancient Indians in the 4th century are said to have noted ants congregating at the urine of diabetics.

Attempts at treatment began when no more was known about diabetes than the polyuria. John Rollo, Surgeon-General to the Royal Artillery treated a patient by dietary restriction in 1706.

The great figure in the story of diabetes in the first half of the 19th century was Claude Bernard. This man, who was trained as a pharmacist, became a dominant figure in physiology and medicine in France and all of Europe.  In fact, when he died in 1878, he was given a state funeral.

Bernard discovered that the liver stored glycogen and secreted a sugary substance into the blood. He assumed it was this substance that caused diabetes. At that time it was thought that the nervous system controlled secretary organs. This led him to a second discovery, that pricking the brain stem in a conscious animal caused temporary diabetes.

In 1879, Von Mering, a German physician, disproved Bernard’s liver theory when he found that removing the pancreas caused diabetes. He and his partner, Minkowski, worked on extracting an antidiabetic substance from the pancreas but could not find a way to do this.

The idea that the antidiabetic substance might come from the islets of Langerhans was widely held at that time. This was reasoned because the rest of the gland was quite different and therefore would have a different function.

Banting insulinFrederick Banting, co-discoverer of insulin (photo courtesy National Library of Medicine).

Discovery of Insulin

The story of the triumphant discovery of insulin took place in 1921 in Canada by Fredrick Banting, an unsuccessful orthopaedic surgeon, who after reading about the association between the pancreas and diabetes became convinced that he could find the antidiabetic substance.

He persuaded J.J.R. Macloud, a professor of physiology in Toronto, to let him try. Macloud assigned a young medical student, Charles Best, to work with him and later when the going got rough, he put a visiting professor of biochemistry, J.B. Collip, on the problem with positive results.

After many failures, the group prepared an extract from the atrophied pancreas of a dog. They then isolated two other dogs with diabetes, administered the extract to one, and nothing to the other. Four days later the control dog died, but the dog that received the extract lived for three weeks, dying only after there was no more extract.

On January 11, 1922, a 14-year-old boy became the first human patient to receive insulin made by Banting and Best.

This failed, but purified injections developed by Collip were given starting January 23, 1922.

This time, the patient’s blood glucose levels dropped. News spread all over the world and within weeks leaders came to Toronto to see for themselves if the rumors were true and to learn how to make the insulin, both from Connaught in Toronto and from Eli Lilly, of Indianapolis, IN, with whom the researches collaborated to produce insulin in the United States and Latin America.

While Lilly was successful in manufacturing insulin, the Toronto team continued to struggle and by mid-July 1922 there was a severe shortage in Toronto. Lilly shipped the product and by the end of 1923, insulin was being produced commercially and used to treat diabetes in most western countries.

August Krogh of Denmark, a Nobel Prize winner for his research on capillaries, was in the US to talk about his work, but found that everyone was talking about insulin. When he returned home he laid the foundation for the Danish insulin manufacturing industry and Nordisk Insulin Company. This was a non-profit-making company which together with the Novo Company was responsible for making Denmark the main insulin producing company outside of the US.

The first insulin was a quick and short acting ‘soluble’ or ‘regular’ insulin. It had to be injected twice daily. These insulins were crude and impure and early patients had to endure intramuscular injections of 5 to18 ml. Pain and abscesses were common. There was an obvious need for a longer acting insuli, and in 1936, protamine zinc insulin was introduced.  In 1954, the lente insulins were introduced.

Impurities in early insulin was mainly due to pancreatic peptides which were present in tiny concentrations. The Danes produced a purer type of insulin. ‘Monocomponent’ insulin, and other ‘highly purified insulins’ were made.

When the Danes began to capitalize on these improved products, the Americans reacted by producing ‘human’ insulin, a genetically engineered insulin which now dominates the market. Previously, insulin had come from animal sources, mainly cattle in the US and pigs in Denmark. These differ from each other in one to three amino acids and are all effective.

Insulin was crystallized in 1926 by J.J. Abel. Its composition, two chains of 51 amino acids linked by disulphide bridges, was discovered by Fredrick Sanger of Cambridge. For his work, he received the Nobel Prize in 1955.

The three dimensional structure of the insulin molecule was discovered 14 years later in Oxford by Dorothy Hodgin. She won the Nobel Prize for her work with insulin and vitamin B12.

The scientific investigation of diabetes was improved by the technique of immunoassay by Solomon Berson and Rosalind Yalow in 1957. Minute concentrations of insulin can be consistently measured, a huge improvement on the previous methods of bioassay.

Yalow, who survived Berson, received the Nobel Prize, knowing that their work transformed endocrinology.


Types of Insulin

Today in the United States, biosynethic human insulin is made by recombinant DNA technology, a scientific process that allows for the production of nearly unlimited quantities of human insulin. Because insulin needs vary from person to person, different types of human insulin are available.

These include:

  1. Rapid acting. Humalog, Novolog, or Apidra. This insulin is taken before eating to counteract the rise in blood sugar from the food. It begins to work in 15 to 30 minutes, peaks 1 1/2 to 2 hours, and lasts 4 hours.
  2. Short acting. Regular or R insulin begins to work within an hour but stops working sooner than intermediate or long-acting insulins. Peaks 2 to 4 hours. Duration 6 to 8 hours
  3. Intermediate acting. NPH (N) and Lente (L) insulins peak in 6 to12 hours and lasts 18 to 26 hours.
  4. Long-acting insulin. Lantus and Levemir insulins begins to act in 6 to 8 hours, peak in 14 to 24 hours and last 28 to 36 hours. 

Current Insulin Delivery Systems

  1. Injections with a syringe are the most common delivery system.
  2. Insulin pens look like a pen with a cartridge which holds varying amounts and types of insulin.
  3. External insulin pumps are about the size of a pager.  These are attached to the body through a narrow flexible tube with a needle just under the skin, and a refillable cartridge holds insulin good for about 2 days. The needle and tubing need to be changed on a regular basis. A second type of tubeless pump, called a "patch pump," uses an insulin-filled disposable pod that attaches directly to the skin and is operated wirelessly with a separate, handheld electronic device.
  4. Inhalable insulin. The rapid acting, inhalable insulin Afreeza has been available for use since 2014. Afreeza is a powder form insulin that is breathed into the lungs through an inhaler.
  5. Insulin jet injectors send a fine spray of insulin through the skin at high pressure.  These tend to be expensive, and aren't very commonly used.

The Future of Insulin as a Diabetes Treatment

Researchers are hard at work developing and performing clinical trials on an "artificial pancreas" system, which is also sometimes referred to as a "bionic pancreas." The goal of the system is to have a single device that detects blood glucose levels and regulates blood sugar with insulin and other hormones without human intervention.

Other researchers are examining ways of encapsulating beta cells in a semi-permeable membrane to protect them from immune attacks after transplantation.

Bioengineers are working on creating artificial beta cells that secrete insulin in response to glucose.

These are but a few of the roads that researchers are following to control and cure diabetes.

Insulin, that complex three-D protein, holds the secrets, but wouldn’t the early researchers be astounded at the progress, and wouldn’t they jump in to continue the fight?

We all continue the battle as we care for ourselves and others on a daily basis. Make sure you remain an active partner in the search for better treatments and a cure by contributing whatever and whenever possible to diabetes research.

For further interesting information, read The Discovery of Insulin by Michael Bliss.

Updated on: November 30, 2015
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