James Bertram Collip

James Bertram Collip
(1892 - 1965)
Canadian Biochemist

Josef von Mering

Josef von Mering
(1849 - 1908)
Scientist & Professor
of Medicine at Strasbourg

Oskar Minkowski

Oskar Minkowski
(1858 - 1931)
German scientist
& assistant to von Mering

Paul Langerhans

Paul Langerhans
(1847 - 1888)
German Medical Student

Two young Canadian scientists, Sir Frederick Grant Banting and Charles Herbert Best picked up directly from where Oskar Minkowski had left off. In collaboration with biochemist James B Collip and physiologist J J R Macleod, Banting and Best carried out experiments that led to the discovery of insulin at the University of Toronto in Canada. Charles Best, a young student, had volunteered to help Banting with the experiments. His Aunt Anna had died from diabetes and he knew that as it was a hereditary disease it might well reappear in his family. Both men served in the Army overseas, Banting as a medical officer and Best as a sergeant major in a combatant unit. They struck up an immediate friendship and dedicated their time to researching diabetes.

Banting and Best began with a study of the literature associated with the last twenty years of research. Undeterred by the many failures they started to operate on dogs at the University of Toronto Medical Buildings. The two young men occupied a small room on the second floor. They did not have an assistant, so each day began with feeding the dogs, housed two levels up, in a sky-lit attic room. Close by, there was a small cubicle where they operated, tying off ducts in the dog's pancreases to observe and isolate the internal secretions. The constant monitoring of blood sugars through blood and urine samples was a laborious task. Imagine the difficulties of collecting urine samples from dogs!

Dog
Dog
Dog

In the hot summer of 1921 they decided to make one of the dogs diabetic and to extract the pancreas of another dog whose ducts had been tied securely for some five or six weeks. It was the extraction of the material from this dog that proved to be the crucial turning point in their studies. Fortunately, the degenerated pancreas was kept chilled which made success possible. The low temperature prevented any remaining protein-digesting enzyme of the main gland from inactivating the extract they had isolated. By late July, they had succeeded in isolating the substance we all know as insulin.

Soon they were injecting some of the material into the diabetic dogs. The initial effects were not that dramatic, but the substance was lowering the sugar levels in the blood and urine. For the next few weeks they worked day and night on a succession of diabetic dogs, using the extract to produce life saving results. They fed the dogs sugar and then injected the extract to observe reductions in the blood sugar levels.

They observed, that injecting too much of the extract resulted in excessively low blood sugar, or 'Hypoglycaemia'. The extract was first referred to as "Isletin" after the secreting cells within the pancreas - the Islands of Langerhans. Later, the name was changed to "Insulin" to aid spelling and pronunciation throughout the world.
The word Insulin comes from the Greek "Insula" meaning 'island'.

Banting and Best continued their experiments and found that the insulin from unborn calves was far more potent as it contained little or no digestive enzymes. There was a ready supply of pancreases available from abattoirs, which would have otherwise gone to waste. Fired with ambition they pressed on in order to apply their findings to human patients. Many great minds and valuable facilities now became available for this task. Intense research followed and monthly reports highlighted important findings.

On 11th January 1922, at the Toronto General Hospital, a young boy called Leonard Thompson, who had been diagnosed in 1920 at the age of 11, became the first human to be injected with insulin. Like many others, he was near to death and already spending most of his time in bed. Leonard agreed to be injected with the new 'insulin' drug and it saved his life.

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