Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that allows the body to pull sugar from blood and burn it to produce energy.
Frederick Banting discovered a way to remove and use the pancreatic “juice” of animals to save the lives of diabetic humans. The discovery of the hormone insulin has saved millions of human lives. Diabetes used to be a death sentence. There was no known way to replace the function of a pancreas that had stopped producing insulin. Banting’s discovery changed all that.
Although insulin is not a cure for diabetes, this discovery turned the death sentence of diabetes into a manageable malady with which millions of people live healthy and normal lives.
In early 1921, 28-year-old Canadian orthopedic surgeon Frederick Banting developed a theory, actually, it was more of a vague idea, for a way to help people suffering from diabetes.
The outer cells of the pancreas produced strong digestive juices. But the inner cells produced a delicate hormone that flowed straight into the blood. Muscles got their energy from sugars in the bloodstream, which came from food. But the body couldn’t pull sugar out of the bloodstream without that hormone from the inner cells of the pancreas.
When the inner cells of a person’s pancreas stopped making that hormone, their muscles couldn’t draw sugar from the bloodstream, and the bloodstream became overloaded with sugar and struggled to get rid of it through excess urination. The body dehydrated; and the patient became deathly ill. This condition was called diabetes.
In 1920 there was no cure for diabetes. It was always fatal.
Researchers had tried obtaining the pancreatic hormone (which they referred to as “juice”) from animals. But when a pancreas was ground up, the digestive juices from the outer cells were so strong that they destroyed the delicate juice from the inner cells before it could be used.
Banting read an article by Dr. Moses Barron that described the fate of several patients in whom a blockage had developed in the ducts carrying pancreatic outer cell digestive juices to the stomach. These strong acids had been trapped in the outer cells of the pancreas and had destroyed those cells. The cells literally shut down and dried up.
Banting wondered if he could intentionally kill the outer pancreatic cells of an animal and then harvest its inner cell juice for use by diabetic humans.
His plan was simple enough. Operate to tie off the ducts from a dog’s pancreatic outer cells to the stomach, wait the eight weeks Dr. Barron had mentioned in his article, and hope that the outer cells had dried up and died. Finally, in a second operation, he would harvest the dog’s pancreas and see if it still contained life-giving inner cells and their precious juice. He would artificially create diabetes in another dog s and see if the pancreatic fluid from the first dog could keep it alive.
With no funding, Banting talked his way into the use of a lab and six test dogs. The surgery was simple enough. Now he had to wait eight weeks for the outer cells to die.
However, early in week six the diabetic dog slid into a coma. This was the last stage before death. Banting couldn’t wait any longer. He operated on one of the other dogs, successfully removing its pancreas. He ground up this tissue and extracted the juice by dissolving it in a chloride solution.
He injected a small amount of this juice into the diabetic dog. Within 30 minutes the dog awakened from its coma. Within two hours it was back on its feet. In five hours it began to slide back down hill. With another injection it perked up, with enough energy to bark and wag its tail.
Banting was ecstatic. His hunch had been right.
Dr. John Marcum named the juice, “insulin” during the two years that he and Dr. Banting searched for a way to create this precious juice without harming lab dogs, a feat they eventually accomplished.
In 1922 a 14-year-old boy suffering from type I diabetes was the first person to be treated with insulin. He showed rapid improvement.