Insulin was isolated and first used to treat diabetes in 1921, one hundred years ago. To celebrate this landmark, I will quote a few paragraphs from the section on blood hormones in Isaac Asimov’s A Short History of Biology.
The most spectacular early result of hormone work… was in connection with the disease, diabetes mellitus. This involved a disorder in the manner in which the body broke down sugar for energy, so that a diabetic accumulated sugar in his blood to abnormally high levels. Eventually, the body was forced to get rid of the excess sugar through the urine, and the appearance of sugar in the urine was symptomatic of an advanced stage of the disease. Until the twentieth century, the disease was certain death.
Suspicion arose that the pancreas was somehow connected with the disease, for in 1893, two German physiologists, Joseph von Mering (1849–1908) and Oscar Minkowski (1858–1931), had excised the pancreas of experimental animals and found that severe diabetes developed quickly. Once the hormone concept had been propounded by Starling and Bayliss, it seemed logical to suppose that the pancreas produced a hormone which controlled the manner in which the body broke down sugar.
Attempts to isolate the hormone from the pancreas… failed, however. Of course, the chief function of the pancreas was to produce digestive juices, so that it had a large content of protein-splitting enzymes. If the hormone were itself a protein (as, eventually, it was found to be) it would break down in the very process of extraction.
In 1920, a young Canadian physician, Frederick Grant Banting (1891–1941), conceived the notion of tying off the duct of the pancreas in the living animal and then leaving the gland in position for some time. The digestive-juice apparatus of the gland would degenerate, since no juice could be delivered, while those portions secreting the hormone directly into the blood stream would (he hoped) remain effective. In 1921, he obtained some laboratory space at the University of Toronto and with an assistant, Charles Herbert Best (1899-), he put his notion into practice. He succeeded famously and isolated the hormone “insulin.” The use of insulin has brought diabetes under control, and while a diabetic cannot be truly cured even so and must needs submit to tedious treatment for all his life, that life is at least a reasonably normal and prolonged one.
Where does physics, engineering, and technology enter this story? Consider the insulin pump. This modern medical device includes a battery-powered pump, an insulin reservoir, and a cannula and tubing for delivery of the insulin under the skin. It is controlled by a computer the size of a cell phone.
Happy 100th birthday, insulin!
Originally published at http://hobbieroth.blogspot.com.