University of Toronto celebrates Insulin’s 100th Anniversary

University of Toronto celebrates Insulin’s 100th Anniversary

Photo Credit: Samantha Hamilton Photo Editor

The history of insulin and its significance in medicine

Ruichen (Richard) Yan: The Mike Contributor

  2021 marks the 100th year after the discovery of insulin at the University of Toronto. Discovered by Banting and Best in 1921, insulin soon became one of U of T’s best-known findings to date.

  History of diabetes

  To conquer one of the most challenging diseases in human history, generations of medical researchers devoted themselves to developing a treatment for diabetes. Before insulin emerged, diabetes was among one of the deadliest diseases in the world. Patients suffered from excessive urination and thirst. According to statistics in 1920, patients, especially children, with Type 1 diabetes generally had a life expectancy of less than a year. Between 0.5 and 2% of all the residents of industrialized countries had diabetes in the 1920s. As diabetes abruptly swept across the world, the public was looking for a treatment to help them escape from this disaster.

During the Franco-Prussian War, a French physician found that changes in food rationing resulted in less occurrences of diabetes in soldiers. After the war, he developed an individualized diet plan to treat diabetes, leading to a treatment trend in the 1900s. In 1916, Boston scientist Elliott Joslin wrote a textbook, The Treatment of Diabetes Mellitus, including his latest diabetes research. Joslin suggested that a fasting diet with regular exercise could lower the risk of death in diabetes. After initial experiments, physicians had a better understanding of diabetes, but the risk of illness didn’t disappear. People were still in dire need of medical treatment. 

  The era of inspiration

  On an autumn night of 1921, Frederick Banting, a graduate from U of T Medical School, had an idea for curing diabetes, which later became a turning point of medical history. After returning from the battlefield, Banting applied his knowledge as a medical student operating a medical practice to earn his living. However, he didn’t have enough patients, with no more choices, he went to the University of Western Ontario as a part-time instructor. To fulfil his dream treating diabetes, he persuaded John Macleod, a Professor of Physiology at U of T, to give him a lab space to conduct his experiments. Under Macleod’s supervision, he and his assistant, Charles Best, initiated a program to conduct their first phase of experiments. The process was not easy. They first tested their treatment on a diabetic dog, and they successfully lowered its sugar level. After this experiment, Banting collaborated with James Collip, a biochemist from the University of Alberta, to purify the substance they extracted to fit the human body. After weeks of purification, insulin was invented. 

   Skepticism and solution

  While Banting and Best were pleasantly surprised by this outstanding achievement, some peers raised their concerns about the safety of the newly developed treatment. People asked questions: would there be toxic effects incorporated in the injection? Did it cause fever? Did the insulin have detrimental effects to the human body, as the previous experiments used dogs as experimental subjects? Although questions emerged, Banting and his team didn’t reduce their pace on further improving the reliability of insulin. They were persistent in proposing an injection in the human body to check the safety of this new treatment. On January 11th, 1922, Leonard Thompson, a patient at the Toronto General Hospital, became the first person to receive insulin treatment. After being injected, Thompson’s sugar level dropped from 440 to 320, which meant a 25% drop in blood sugar. This showed that the first trial of insulin on the human body was greatly successful. By February 1922, more patients received the insulin extract. Their diabetic symptoms became alleviated: Ruth, an 8-year-old girl from Baltimore, improved her health and strength after receiving insulin. Theodore Ryder, a boy from Keyport, New Jersey, has had Type 1 diabetes since 5 years old. After being injected insulin, Ryder started to gain weight. Their family celebrated his 6th birthday in September 1922, which his uncle did not believe Ryder could live until then.

   The breakthrough on diabetes treatment also attracted the press and medical corporations’ interest. On December 7th, 1922, an article from the Toronto Star described the two cases of insulin injections and their effects on the patients. In the same year, the medical corporation, Eli Lily, initiated a cooperation with U of T to begin its large-scale insulin production development during the summer of 1922, providing reliable products for medical specialists to treat more patients with diabetes. Banting and Macleod were awarded the Nobel Prize for the “discovery of insulin” in 1923.

  After 100 years, although the threat from diabetes is still present, around 150 million people are relying on insulin for alleviations of their illness. As the institution which supported and sponsored this invention, the University of Toronto held a series of events to celebrate this great invention. “Insulin 100” is among one of the projects designed by the University to recall this outstanding achievement by Doctor Frederick Banting and his team as well as encourage all U of T members to strive for the next 100 years of scientific discovery.