100 Years Ago, Insulin Was Used to Treat Diabetes for The First Time

Insulin was discovered in 1921 and one year later on January 11th, 1922, it was administered to a person with diabetes.

Insulin is a lifesaver for tens of millions of people living with diabetes around the world. The importance of the hormone’s discovery and the ability to harness it to balance blood sugar cannot be overstated. It changed everything for people living with diabetes, giving them and so many of us living with the disease today a path to longer, healthier, and happier lives.

This year, 2022, we celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the first-time insulin was injected into a human being to treat diabetes. This was a monumental achievement in medicine, and we think deserves a special shout out. So, in this post we proudly present a brief history lesson on the discovery of insulin.

By 1920….

Science uncovers clusters of cells in the pancreas that produce insulin and determines that the destruction of these cells is the underlying cause of Type 1 diabetes, which is essentially a death sentence at the time. Now that they understand the cause, researchers begin trying to treat the condition.

One interested party is a Canadian surgeon named Frederick Banting. It’s said that after reading an article suggesting that the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas break down and deteriorate slower than the rest of the tissue, Banting wonders if harvesting insulin might be possible by breaking down the pancreas in a way that would leave only those insulin producing cells intact.

Good theory, except that Banting is a surgeon, not a scientist. So, he enlists the help of a top professor at the University of Toronto named John Macleod.

In 1921

Banting and Macleod begin experiments with the help of a research student named Charles Best.  On May 17, 1921, these three pioneers start searching for a way to isolate and remove insulin from the pancreas by experimenting with dogs. In the most basic terms, the theory is to “tie off” the pancreatic ducts of certain dogs in an attempt to destroy other substances in the pancreas while leaving the insulin-producing islets intact. Then, the scientists can extract this remaining insulin and administer it to other dogs whose pancreases have been removed and, therefore, do not produce insulin. The resulting changes in blood sugar in the second group of dogs will inform the team on whether or not insulin is having the desired effect.

November 10, 1921

As with most medical breakthroughs, progress is slow in the early stages. However, eventually the team begins seeing definitive drops in blood sugar in the dogs treated with the harvested insulin. They know they are on the path to something groundbreaking. By November, they had successfully treated a dog with “diabetes” for 70 days – the first Eureka moment.

December 12, 1921

Now that insulin has been successfully extracted and used to treat dogs, James Collip, a biochemist, joins the group with the goal of purifying insulin so it can be used on humans. Using the pancreas of cattle, he quickly spearheads a more concentrated and pure form of insulin … and this breakthrough happens just in time for one very lucky teenager.

January 11, 1922 – Insulin Is Used to Treat a Person with Diabetes for The First Time

Leonard Thompson, a 14-year-old boy dying from Type 1 diabetes, became the first person to receive an injection of insulin. Within 24 hours of receiving the drug, Leonard’s life-threateningly high blood sugar level drops. Unfortunately, soon after he also develops an infection at the injection site and is still suffering from high levels of ketones in the blood.

Undaunted, Collip labors around the clock to further purify the insulin extract and Leonard is given a follow-up injection on January 23, 1922. The result is an unprecedented success. Leonard’s blood sugar drops to near normal levels and he experiences no side effects from the treatment. This is it. This is the first insulin treatment used to successfully control blood sugar in a human being.

More importantly, for the first time ever, Type 1 diabetes is no longer a fatal condition.

May 3, 1922

John Macleod presents the team’s discovery to the international medical community, marking the first time the term “insulin” is used in a medical forum. The team receives a well-deserved standing ovation.

January 23, 1923 – the gift of life is given to the world

Perhaps the most incredible part of this story is that Banting, Collip and Best were each awarded U.S. patents on insulin and the method used to create it. These men sold these patents to the University of Toronto for the whopping sum of $1. Yes, one buck. Banting would famously go on to say, “Insulin does not belong to me, it belongs to the world.”

By October of 1923, techniques are perfected for the mass production of insulin and Eli Lilly becomes the first manufacturer of the drug and begins shipping insulin in commercial quantities. This same month, Banting and Macleod were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. In fitting form, Banting splits his prize money with Best, while Macleod splits his prize money with Collip.

This was a discovery, after all, that required the best of all four of these incredible minds.

100 years and counting

The brilliance, dedication, and generosity of Sir Frederick G. Banting, JJR Macleod, Charles H. Best and James B. Collip will forever go down in history. These pioneers and their achievements saved more lives than they could possibly comprehend at the time. Some 100 years later, insulin remains the primary medication used to treat both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

That’s certainly a century and an anniversary worth celebrating. On behalf of everyone living with diabetes today, we thank you gentlemen.

We hope you found this post informative and insightful. At Diabetic Warehouse, we committed to helping those with diabetes manage their disease with a complete selection of testing and treatment supplies at prices up to 65% less those found at most pharmacies and suppliers.

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