How was diabetes treated before the discovery of insulin?
Prior to the discovery of insulin, the treatment of diabetes was quite challenging. People affected might only live a year or two and were put on very strict diets with limited carbohydrates during that time. The most well-known of these diets was developed by Dr Frederick Allen, a physician based in New Jersey. Essentially, the Allen Diets were glorified starvation diets, consisting of a series of regimens with slightly different ratios of carbohydrates. They would keep people with diabetes alive for just a little longer than if they had followed a free diet. Unfortunately, people on the diets withered away and would typically die of ketoacidosis, particularly during the winter. The outlook for people with type 1 diabetes was therefore very grim before insulin was discovered.
Talk us through the discovery of insulin
The story of the discovery of insulin is very interesting. In the autumn of 1920, Frederick Banting, a young surgeon from London, Ontario (Canada), had the idea of an experimental procedure to ligate the pancreatic ducts and isolate the internal secretions. He took this idea to Prof. JRR Macleod at the University of Toronto. MacLeod was sceptical, but gave Banting the opportunity to work in his lab during the summer of 1921, and also assigned a young medical student, Charles Best, to assist him. During the summer, Banting and Best experienced a number of challenges trying to get the ducts ligated and extract the secretion they were looking for. They were ultimately successful and managed to keep several dogs with diabetes alive with injections of the internal secretion.
They communicated their excitement and results to Macleod, who was impressed and assigned the biochemist JB Collip to the team, in order to develop the extract further. By January 1922, Banting and Best were comfortable that the pancreatic extract they had discovered – which they called insulin – could potentially treat diabetes in humans. On January 23, they successfully administered insulin to Leonard Thompson, a 13-year-old boy with type 1 diabetes, who went on to live several more years thanks to his ongoing insulin therapy.
In January 1923, Banting, Best and Collip were awarded the American Patent for insulin, which they sold to the University of Toronto for the price of just one dollar. When asked why the team in Toronto did not seek more financial gain from their important discovery, Banting reportedly said, “Insulin belongs to the world not me.”
By the end of 1923, insulin had become available more widely thanks to increased production in Toronto and the start of production from companies such as Eli Lilly and Hoechst.
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