Banting’s Legacy: Insulin Innovations

Frederick Banting discovered insulin 95 years ago, and today, it is still the best treatment available for diabetes. However, modern types and methods of insulin production and distribution today are unlike anything Banting would have known. Since 1922, many doctors and researchers have worked tirelessly to innovate and improve upon insulin treatment.

When Frederick Banting and his team began distributing insulin in the early 1920s, there is no doubt that the life-saving treatment was appreciated by diabetics everywhere. However, it was by no means a perfect solution to the problem of diabetes. The first insulin which Frederick Banting gave to his patients was “soluble” or short-acting insulin. It was impure and had to be injected with syringes twice daily. While their recovery was nothing short of a miracle, the pain and abscesses that the first diabetics who used insulin were forced to deal with were unpleasant.

However, as the 20th century went on, new innovations to insulin ensured greater safety and comfort for those who took it. In 1936 Hans Christian Hagedorn, a Danish doctor, discovered a way to make longer-lasting insulin. Midway through the century Frederick Sanger, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, sequenced insulin. It was the first human protein to be entirely sequenced. For this work, he was given the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology in 1958.

1963 was a big year for insulin innovations. It became the first human protein to be fully synthesized. The same year, distribution became much easier with the invention of the insulin pump by Arnold Kadish. The pump releases small amounts of insulin based on your body’s needs. The first pump was large, and was designed to be worn as a backpack – now they are much smaller and more accurate. For many people with diabetes, the pump is a much better way of delivering insulin – this way, the amount of insulin you take is measured for your lifestyle, not the other way around.

First insulin pump
The first insulin pump was designed to be worn as a backpack.

In 1978, insulin made history once again as it became the first human protein to be manufactured through biosynthetic means. This meant that insulin was more reliable when it was injected into the human body, unlike previous batches which had come from pig and cow pancreases.

Looking to the future, there are many insulin innovations on the horizon. There are ongoing trials with both ultra-rapid and ultra-long lasting insulin, as well as “smart” insulin, which will read blood glucose levels and react as needed.

Frederick Banting’s discovery has gone through many changes since 1922, and continues to change to suit the needs of diabetics everywhere. This longevity is a testament to his idea, which he worked so hard to bring to fruition. Hopefully one day we will find a cure for diabetes, and the Flame of Hope outside Banting House will be extinguished – until then, researchers will keep innovating and improving upon Banting’s idea in their search for a cure!

This post was written by Kylie Smith. Kylie recently graduated with a B.A. in history and anthropology from The University of Western Ontario, and will be attending teachers college in the fall.

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