January 19 – Sweet!

Today’s Factismal: Leonard Thompson received the first insulin injection in 1922.

Though it may seem amazing today, there was once a time when diabetes was both rare and fatal. Thanks to improvements in medical science and Leonard Thompson’s bravery, that time is long past.

Diabetes mellitus (its name means “passing through sweet”, a reference to the increased sugar levels in the urine of diabetics) is one of the more common diseases; world-wide, nearly 300 million people have diabetes. And diabetes is nothing new. Egyptians in the court of King Tut diagnosed it, as did the Greeks of Socrates’ time who gave the disease its name. What is new is that diabetes is no longer a death sentence.

Diabetes kills both quickly and slowly. The disease damages blood vessels, which can lead to stroke, heart attacks, blindness, and kidney damage ; it also attacks nerves, muscle, and even your gums. In advanced cases, diabetes can lead to coma and death as your body releases glucose in response to low insulin levels. Though the less severe complications can be treated with a combination of diet and exercise (which is still the recommended course of action today), there was no cure for diabetic coma. Once a patient slipped into a coma, death was sure to follow within a few weeks. And even the diets of those days were severe enough to cause death; a typical “menu” included under 400 calories a day (roughly what you would get from an Egg McMuffin) and so led to weight loss and starvation.

But that changed in 1922. Just one year earlier, Banting and Best had identified a lack of insulin as the culprit in diabetes, and had managed to develop a method for extracting insulin from the pancreas of sheep. (Interestingly, only Banting was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery. That made him so mad that he refused to accept the medal and shared the prize money with Best!) Their discovery was put to the test by Leonard Thompson, a 14 year old boy who had just been diagnosed with diabetes.

The first injection was nearly a disaster. Early extraction methods sometimes left impurities in the insulin, and one of those sparked an allergic reaction that nearly killed Leonard. But he survived and did not go into a coma, which was miracle enough in those days. Another researcher was able to develop a better method for extracting insulin using beef pancreases. The new insulin was a success and allowed Leonard to live to the ripe old age of 27, when he died of pneumonia. Insulin was soon the “go-to” medicine for diabetes; within five years, it was available world-wide and diabetes had changed from a death sentence to a manageable condition.

If you’d like to participate in diabetes research, The California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences is trying to map the genome of intestinal flora that may contribute to diabetes:
http://www.qb3.org/

2 thoughts on “January 19 – Sweet!

  1. Pingback: September 15 – Making the Tardigrade | Little facts about science

  2. Pingback: September 6 – OMG! GMO! | Little facts about science

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