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90 Years Ago Today, Two Canadians Won The Nobel Prize For Discovering Insulin
October 25, 2013
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Sir Frederick Banting and John Macleod (Photos: Library & Archives Canada/U of Toronto)

Before insulin was discovered, diabetes was more or less a death sentence for many patients. Although doctors were aware that limiting patients' sugar intake could buy them a few extra years, the disease was almost always fatal, and there was no known medical treatment. 

Then a Toronto surgeon came up with a novel idea that would revolutionize the treatment of diabetes, leading to the very first Canadian Nobel prize win 90 years ago today, on October 25, 1923. Here's the story behind that prize.

In October 1920, Dr. Frederick G. Banting, building on discoveries made by German medical researchers in the 1800s, came up with the idea of extracting cells from the pancreas that produce anti-diabetic secretions, the Nobel Prize website reports.

Early in 1921, he took his idea to Professor John Macleod at the University of Toronto, a leading figure in the study of diabetes. Macleod wasn't impressed with Banting's theories at first. But he did give him a laboratory with basic equipment and ten dogs to experiment on.

Banting also got an assistant, Charles Best (pictured at left), who would prove instrumental in the discovery of insulin. The pair got to work, and produced a substance they called "isletin," which seemed to be effective in keeping dogs safe from the effects of diabetes. They showed their work to Macleod, who was now impressed, and after they conducted further tests, he moved Banting and Best into a bigger lab, where they were joined by another researcher, biochemist Bertram Collip.

Macleod also suggested a new name for their substance: "insulin."

The next step was testing insulin on humans — and the first test subjects were Banting and Best themselves. After injecting themselves with insulin, they felt weak and dizzy but unharmed. In January 1922, after further refinement, they conducted the first test on a person with diabetes, a 14-year-old boy named Leonard Thompson.  

Before receiving treatment, Thompson was near death, but soon after receiving insulin shots, he regained his strength and appetite. Other patients soon followed, with similarly positive results.

In 1923, the Nobel Committee decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Banting and Macleod. According to the Nobel website, Banting was "furious" with the decision, believing that Best should have shared the prize, not Macleod. To help ensure Best was recognized for his work, Banting shared his prize money with his research partner. Macleod, in turn, shared his win with Collip. 

The team patented insulin, but gave away all their rights to the University of Toronto, which used the income from the drug to fund other research. Medical company Eli Lilly started mass manufacturing the drug, and in 1923, there was enough insulin in the market to supply all of North America. 

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