The Insulin Centennial: Diabetic Care over the Last 100 Years

illustration of diabetic care items (insulin bottle, glucose meter, etc.)

August 2021 marks 100 years since the discovery of insulin. Before insulin was discovered, a diagnosis of diabetes would be seen as a death sentence. The only remedies available at that time were very restrictive low-calorie and low-carbohydrate diets. These regimens could extend patients’ lives by a few years, but they would still ultimately succumb to the disease. They also made diabetic patients very weak and could even lead to starvation.

Simply put, the discovery of insulin helped save many lives—as it continues to do today.

Discovery of insulin

Insulin was discovered by medical scientist Fredrick Banting with the help of Charles Best, a medical student at the University of Toronto, Canada.

In the summer of 1921, insulin was first tested on a diabetic dog where it was found to lower blood sugar. At first, it was called pancreatic extract, but in 1922 the name was changed to insulin as we know it today.

Leonard Thompson, a 14-year-old boy from Toronto, was the first patient to receive an insulin injection. While the subject developed acute allergic reactions, the insulin helped to extend his life for 13 years.

A five-year-old boy known as Teddy Ruder had lost weight to the extent of only weighing in at 26 pounds due to diabetes. It appeared he had only a few months left to live. The young boy received an insulin injection in July 1922. By age 6, he had regained weight and lived for another 71 years.

Insulin helped to save many patients who previously would have been lost causes. Its ability to help weak patients regain strength immediately was described as a medical miracle.

Mass production of insulin was started by the University of Toronto in partnership with Eli Lilly & Co. It has now become the most effective way to treat type 1 diabetes.

Effects of Insulin Today

Improvements continue to be made to boost the quality of insulin. Diabetic patients have access to insulin analogs which have better quality and predictability. Children with diabetes can play and eat normal food like other children. Life expectancy for diabetic people is approaching that of non-diabetics.

Despite the improvements of insulin and minimized side effects, most patients are burdened by the cost of insulin. New improvements in insulin come with more patents. These patents limit competition and make the production of insulin very expensive.

Since diabetes is a chronic disease, it can be a financial burden to low-income patients in the long term. More needs to be done to live up to the constitution of the WHO which seeks to provide the highest standard of health to every human regardless of race, religion, political, economic, and social status.

Takeaway

Today, insulin may be taken for granted, but it’s responsible for saving millions of lives globally. As the world celebrates 100 years since the discovery of insulin, efforts must continue to make insulin accessible to all people.

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