Advancements have made insulin safer, more effective in treating diabetes
In 2022, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first use of insulin, a truly lifesaving drug.
Insulin’s importance to diabetics can’t be overstated, and the improvements that have been made to it have helped make it safer and more effective.
Before insulin’s discovery, there was little that could be done to treat diabetes. Doctors would tell patients to restrict their diets, which prolonged some lives a bit but also caused some to die of starvation.
How insulin was discovered
Two German researchers discovered in 1889 that dogs who had their pancreases removed quickly developed diabetes and died. This established a link between the pancreas and diabetes, and further research showed that one specific chemical was missing from the pancreas of people with diabetes. This chemical was dubbed “insulin,” from the Latin word for “island” (insula), because it’s created by clusters of cells called the islets of Langerhans.
In 1921, Canadian scientist Frederick Banting and his assistant learned to remove insulin from the pancreas of a dog, and later a more refined version of it was created from cattle pancreases. The next year, doctors injected insulin into a 14-year-old Toronto boy in grave condition, and his dropped to safe levels.
Taking insulin during those days was a much different experience than it is today. At first, patients would use glass syringes and have to sharpen their own needles to take insulin, and the type of insulin that was first distributed wasn’t like the refined versions available now.
Major innovations have helped people manage diabetes better
For decades, the insulin that was distributed came from pigs and cows, and the bodies of some people with diabetes would reject it because of the antibodies in their system. A major step forward happened in 1982, when the first biosynthetic human insulin was sold. This version of insulin was more like the human body’s natural version, leading to far fewer complications.
Another vital improvement came in 2000, when a long-lasting version of insulin called Lantus was released. Previous versions of the drug worked for four to eight hours, which left people with diabetes on very strict eating schedules. This more-stable version allowed for much more flexibility for patients.
Additionally, the invention of the insulin pump in the late 1970s made a tremendous difference in how people with diabetes receive the drug. The newest versions of these wearable pumps more closely resemble the way the pancreas secretes insulin to the body, and they allow for precise, small amounts to be distributed at a time.
Talk to your doctor about your own insulin regimen
It’s critical that you have guidance from your physician when setting and maintaining any insulin regimen. Diabetes is a disease that carries a lot of self-responsibility, and it affects every part of a patient’s life. I’ve had patients who have had the disease for decades and find themselves in a routine that keeps the symptoms well-managed, but often they’re unaware of new tools available to them. To be sure you’re on the right program for you, get your doctor’s advice.