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This month in pharma...

Exploring the industry's most important dates, we recall November 1891: The birth of Frederick Banting, 'father' of insulin 

Prior to the discovery of insulin in the early twentieth century, the diagnosis of what is now known as type 1 diabetes was almost always a death sentence, with people unable to manage blood sugar levels effectively and succumbing to hyperglycaemia or another diabetes-related complication.

Medical professionals had long been aware of the condition and its relation to glucose levels in a person's blood, but there was no adequate means of control, with strict diets often a patient's only, if ultimately ineffective, option.

However, the work of Canadian doctor and researcher Frederick Banting managed to revolutionise care for those patients unable to produce their own natural insulin in the pancreas. He researched a method to isolate and extract insulin from the pancreases of adult animals to use in human patients with diabetes. 

It was a discovery that demonstrated its effect almost immediately, with Leonard Thompson, a 14-year-old boy with type 1 diabetes, the first human recipient of the treatment, revived by insulin as he lay close to death in a Canadian hospital.

It was not a flawless process, with Thompson suffering from an allergic reaction due to the impurity of the initial therapy, but it was one the organisation behind the Nobel Prize saw fit to describe as a 'miracle' when presenting him with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 1923.

The prize for the discover of insulin was one Banting shared with Scottish physician Dr John James Rickard Macleod, who provided the facilities at the University of Toronto for Banting's initial experiments.

These were based on Banting's interest in the idea that diabetes was caused by lack of a protein hormone (named as insulin by Sir Edward Albert Sharpey-Schafer) secreted by the pancreas.

Nobody had yet managed to extract the protein, though, due to it being destroyed by the pancreas. However, Banting's work saw him develop his idea to bind specific pancreatic ducts of a dog, letting most of the organ's cells die but leaving the part of the pancreas that produces insulin intact then to extract the life-saving protein.

It was in May 1921 that Banting began his work in Toronto, with assistance from Charles Best, a medical student who won his place to study alongside Banting thanks to the toss of a coin.

The duo managed to lower blood sugar levels in dogs effectively by August, before bringing chemist James Bertram Collip into the team to help purify the insulin for use in humans.

Much to Banting's vexation, Best was not awarded the Nobel Prize alongside him and Macleod, leading to Banting splitting the prize money with Best. Macleod did likewise with Collip, who was also left unhonoured.

Insulin was not just a great success story in medical science, it was one that proved to be a boon for US-based pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly & Company.

Lilly was owned at the time by Josiah K Lilly, Sr, grandson of Eli Lilly who founded the company in the late nineteenth century. In 1919, Josiah hired biochemist George Henry Alexander Clowes as director of biochemical research and Clowes led the negotiations with Banting and his fellow researchers to launch large-scale production of insulin. It was a quick process, with extraction techniques developing rapidly and, by the end of 1923, the firm was producing enough to supply all North America.

Of course, Lilly is not the only pharmaceutical company to have developed its own version of insulin, with the field one of the most active and ongoing product battles between firms to this day. Aside from Lilly, the likes of Novo Nordisk, Sanofi, MSD and Boehringer Ingelheim have all produced their own insulin products, as well as related syringes, needles, pumps and meters to make it as effective and safe for patients as possible.

Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes remain huge problems worldwide, however, with recent data published by the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) suggesting the number of people living with either condition across the world in 2011 had reached 366 milIion. It has never been so important to keep this global epidemic at the top of the healthcare agenda, and it is apt that one of the main events to do so, World Diabetes Day, is held every November 14 – the anniversary of Banting's birth.

Tom Meek
The Author
Tom Meek
, web editor at PMLiVE

To comment on this article, please use the commenting feature below

14th November 2011


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