Insulin Discovery & Development: Animal vs. Synthetic Human Insulin
Islets of Langerhans - Extraction of Pure Insulin

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The Discovery and Development of Insulin

Insulin, a hormone produced by beta cells in the islets of Langerhans, inside the pancreas, plays a central role in the regulation of blood sugar. A type 1 diabetes patient (whose pancreas no longer produces sufficient insulin) needs insulin injections to survive. Here's a brief summary of how insulin was discovered and developed.

Islets of Langerhans

In 1869 Paul Langerhans, a medical student in Berlin, noticed some previously unidentified cells scattered in the exocrine tissue of the pancreas. The function of these cells, later named Islets of Langerhans, was unknown, although it was believed they secreted a material that affected digestion.

Diabetes and Islets of Langerhans

In 1901, Eugene Opie discovered that Diabetes mellitus is caused by the destruction of the Islets of Langerhans. Although the link between the pancreas and diabetes was by then established, Opie was the first to recognize the specific role of the Islets of Langerhans. There then followed several years of research into how to isolate and extract the secretions of the islets, in order to treat patients with diabetes.

Insulin Extraction

However the practical extraction of insulin was achieved in 1921 by researchers at the University of Toronto in 1921, including Frederick Banting, J.J.R. Macleod and Charles Best, from dogs. At Banting's suggestion further tests were performed on calf pancreas', and with the help of biochemist James Collip, the extracted insulin was purified and given (on January 11, 1922) to a 14 year old diabetic patient, Leonard Thompson. Unfortunately the insulin extract was insufficiently pure, and triggered a severe allergic reaction. However, within three weeks, purification of the insulin-extract was improved and the symptoms of diabetes in the patient were treated successfully. Shortly thereafter, in conjunction with the pharmaceutical company Eli Lily, work began on commercial production of pure insulin. For their part in the extraction of insulin, Macleod and Banting were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923. (In response to this 'unfair' award, Banting shared his prize with Best, and MacLeod shared his prize with Collip!)

Synthetic Human Insulin

In 1978, using recombinant DNA techniques, scientists synthesized human insulin from the E coli bacteria. Eli Lily went on to develop the first synthetic human insulin, called Humulin, in 1982.

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