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100 Years of Insulin: Celebrating the Past and Looking Ahead

October 15, 2021

By Colleen Williams, Manager of Public Relations 
 
Much has been said about the remarkable discovery of insulin 100 years ago. The medical breakthrough by scientists at the University of Toronto revolutionized the treatment of diabetes, transforming the disease from a death sentence into a manageable chronic condition.  
 
Here at the Society, we feel the best way to honor this legacy is by looking to the future.  
 
How will insulin therapy evolve in the coming years? What can clinicians, scientists, and advocates do to ensure more people have access to affordable insulin? How can patients better manage their diabetes? 
 
These forward-thinking questions underpin several upcoming Society events during Diabetes Awareness Month in November. Our activities include: 

  • Nov. 9: Insulin 2121: The Next 100 Years of Discoveries. This free, half-day event will feature leading researchers and clinicians discussing technologies and therapies that could transform diabetes care over the next 100 years.
  • Nov. 19: Congressional briefing on diabetes and insulin pricing. Diabetes care is a key priority at the Society. In addition to our briefing, we have launched an online advocacy campaign for members to contact lawmakers urging actions to make insulin affordable.
  • Monthlong: Hormone Health Network (HHN) will raise patient awareness about glucagon and emergency preparedness through its KNOW HYPO campaign. HHN also will highlight diabetes management, complications, and new therapies and treatment from diabetes experts.

But our work around insulin doesn’t stop here. Members can look for upcoming insulin features in our journals, podcasts and in Endocrine News. And throughout November, we will highlight the Society’s many insulin and diabetes resources for patients and providers on Twitter at @HormoneHealthN and @TheEndoSociety, as well as on our other social media feeds. Look for our posts under the hashtags #100YearsInsulin and #DiabetesAwarenessMonth. 
 
Finally, of course, you can find many curated resources on insulin at our dedicated webpage, 100 Years of Insulin. These include multipart video essays from Dr. Michael B. Davidson discussing ways to support patients with diabetes and insulin self-management, and Dr. Daniel Drucker discussing the past, present, and future of insulin. 
 
100 Years of Progress 
 
While we always look forward to continually improving diabetes care, the history of insulin remains a fascinating story. This seminal discovery, to many experts, heralded the dawn of a new era of medicine.  
 
Prior to the 1920s, medicines for all diseases often consisted of unproven tonics, concoctions, home remedies, alcohols, and “snake-oil.” The discovery of insulin was on the leading edge of a modern medical revolution and predated the discovery of penicillin by seven years. 
 
The eureka moments occurred in the summer of 1921, when a team at the University of Toronto (UT) began a new experiment approach suggested by Ontario surgeon Dr. Frederick Banting. 
 
Dr. Banting, along with then-UT student Charles Best and UT alumnus James Collip — under the direction of UT physiology professor J.J.R. Macleod — worked on preparing pancreatic extracts from duct-ligated dogs, which were then injected into diabetic dogs. The preparations lowered blood glucose in the pancreatectomized dogs, but were deemed too toxic for treating humans, according to a history of insulin described in Endocrine Reviews.  
 
By January 1922, the Toronto group had decided they could safely begin testing their pancreatic extracts on human subjects. 
 
The first subject was Leonard Thompson, a 13-year-old boy on the brink of death from diabetes in Toronto General Hospital. The initial treatment produced only modest effects and the injection led to an abscess at the site of injection due to impurities. But then Thompson received a new purer form of the extract and the results were spectacular, according to Endocrine Reviews. 
 
The boy’s blood and urinary sugars went to normal, and his other diabetic symptoms were alleviated.  
 
Looking Ahead 
 
At the Society, our members represent the brightest scientists and practitioners working in endocrinology today. We are confident that similarly remarkable improvements in treatments for diabetes and other endocrine diseases still lie ahead.  
 
Join us Nov. 9 as we explore some of these possibilities, including future treatment options around islet cell transplantation; the potential of next-generation glucagon for severe hypoglycemia; insulin therapies that will change the game for patients with diabetes; and breakthroughs in the artificial pancreas, to name a few. 

 

 

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