6 June 2024

Canadian scientist Frederic Banting’s research into the link between the pancreas and high blood sugar have saved countless lives over the past century.

Today, as daily deaths from COVID-19 in Thailand are in the two digits, we are scared of what the future holds should we or our loved ones fall sick. But while tragic, the figures are nothing compared to the chronic diseases that regularly take lives Each day, around 200 Thais die as a result of diabetes and its complications.

In fact, diabetes has been a major killer for thousands of years. It was only in late 19th century that scientists discovered the connection between the pancreas and diabetes. An even bigger discovery followed in 1921 when Canadian medical scientist Frederic Banting and his colleagues successfully extracted a hormone from the pancreas. Later called insulin, this hormone significantly changed the world.

This year, insulin is celebrating its 100th birthday.

Banting’s discovery led to further research and experiments. He and his colleagues first gave insulin to diabetic dogs and found that their blood sugar dropped sharply.

A year later, a more purified form of insulin was developed and the first insulin shot was given to a young diabetic called Leonard Thompson whose body could not produce insulin.  After the insulin shot, the 14-year-old boy, who weighed only around 29 kilograms, started to see his health improve. He was able to live well and healthily for another 13 years instead of the days or weeks as the doctor had earlier predicted.

For their discovery of the hormone that turned a death sentence into a chronic condition for diabetics, Banting and John Mcleod were named Nobel Prize Laureates in 1923.

Frederick Banting on cover of TIME Magazine on 27 Aug 1923.

From that point onwards, many more medical innovations have been discovered. Insulin has been developed in terms of purity, quality and types, making for greater safety and a need for fewer shots. New production processes have been developed too, enabling pharmaceutical companies to produce larger volumes of high-quality insulin.

In the 1960s, research and studies confirmed that there are several types of diabetes. More medical innovations have been formulated to tackle these different types, especially Type 2 which is more prevalent. Type 2 diabetes is generally caused by insulin resistance related to one’s eating behaviour.

Following this discovery, medical innovations have branched out to cover blood sugar monitoring methods that allow the patients and doctors to monitor blood glucose around the clock and deliver insulin when needed. The 2-inch needle and syringe have been replaced by an insulin pen which has a much smaller and shorter needle and a mini-insulin pump that releases insulin as required throughout the day.

(Photo by Niklas HALLE’N / AFP)

Yingyos Chandrangsu, an 87-year-old physician recalled, “When I started practicing medicine in 1956, an insulin injection was not easy. It was hard for patients to do it themselves. Today, injecting insulin is simple and can be done by the patients themselves anywhere anytime, which is very convenient.”

More recent innovations have resulted in edible medication. Little pills are available as an alternative to injections and they are as efficient in controlling the blood glucose released by liver, encouraging the body to respond faster and more efficiently towards blood glucose and prolonging insulin efficacy.

While medical innovations are moving forward fast, people’s behaviours are also changing. In the past, Thais worked mostly in the fields and farms. They ate lots of vegetables and exercised a lot. Therefore, the risk of diabetes was not that high. Today, with a more Western approach to life, people tend to be more sedentary, consume high-calorie foods and sugar-laden drinks and spend a lot of time at their computers. Low physical activity is one of the key factors in promoting diabetes.

Although one of the tricks to fight diabetes is to change and adopt a healthy lifestyle and foods, insulin remains a significant life saver.

From Banting’s discovery100 years ago, insulin has come a long way. His discovery also led to many more innovations that either save lives or enable diabetic patients to enjoy every single day.

Happy 100th anniversary, insulin!