95 years is a long time, at least as far as age is concerned, but considering that our life-giving insulin was only discovered 95 years ago, that time seems somehow short, doesn’t it? Before then, diabetes was a death sentence. End of story.
Frederick Banting, together with Charles Best, discovered insulin in 1921 saving the lives of millions of people living with diabetes. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery!
It’s amazing how much effect such a small amount (just a few drops) of this strong-smelling liquid has on our body, right? Teeny-tiny adjustments can make a big difference in how our blood sugar behaves and ultimately how we feel.
We've collected some facts about insulin that might surprise you!
1) Insulin was tested on a dog
A female dog was the first creature with diabetes to be kept alive with insulin. That was back in 1921 and her name was Marjorie. She was one of Banting and Best's experimental dogs, who was made “artificially diabetic" by removing her pancreas. She was injected with a daily dose of insulin.
At that time it was rather crude and raw, extracted directly from her pancreas. She survived 70 days before she died of an infection.
2) Older insulins came from cows and pigs
Not long ago, insulin was made from animals and came from the pancreas of cattle and pigs. The profile of animal insulin is very similar to that of human insulin.
Until the 1980s, insulin was derived exclusively from cow and pig pancreas. The shift to synthetic manufacturing was not only due to production bottlenecks, but also had ethical and financial reasons.
3) Modern insulin is made with gut bacteria
Thanks to various manufacturing processes for insulin production, one can do without the ground up innards of pigs and cows. Insulin is manufactured synthetically today.
In addition, the insulin molecule can be changed as desired by modern manufacturing methods. One production method includes using genetically modified bacteria, namely E. coli (an intestinal bacterium).
In short, E. coli bacteria helps to produce the insulin molecule. The “bad part” of the bacterium is destroyed in a later production step. So it's not as disgusting as it sounds.
4) Insulin is on the doping list
Insulin supports the action of anabolic steroids such as testosterone or growth hormone which means it can improve muscle growth. Therefore, insulin is very popular in the bodybuilder scene.
Also in endurance sports, insulin can be used as a doping agent. Insulin accelerates the absorption of carbohydrates and the formation of glycogen (an energy store) in the liver and muscle cells. When certain genes are activated, insulin also influences an accelerated metabolism.
Athletes who dope with insulin (which is not only extremely unsportsmanlike but also dangerous), inject an insulin-glucose and/or glycogen mixture. This is extremely dangerous because the athletes vacillate between extreme power and the risk of falling into a heavy hypoglycemic coma.
Insulin has been on the doping list of the International Olympic Committee since 1998. Athletes with diabetes, such as the team Novo Nordisk athletes, of course, continue to inject insulin.
There are special exemptions for this, of course, because they need insulin to manage their blood sugars. In addition, people with diabetes also have no advantage, since only the right insulin/glucose mixture achieves the desired doping effects.
A lot has happened since 1921, and even though we’ve not yet seen a cure for diabetes, there has been a lot of innovation and we have learned a lot! Today we have much better insulins, we know it’s important to keep an eye on post-meal blood sugars, and we know that leveraging techniques like pre-bolusing or using rapid insulins like Novo’s Fiasp® may help.