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Banting, Sir Frederick

insulin macleod toronto glucose

(1891–1941) Canadian physiologist: co-discoverer of insulin.

Banting studied in Toronto for the church, but after a year changed to medicine and, after graduation in 1916, joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps, winning an MC for gallantry in action in 1918. After the war he set up a practice in London, Ontario, and also worked part-time in the physiology department of the University of Toronto.

Diabetes mellitus is a disease in which glucose appears copiously in the blood and urine, disturbing the metabolism. It is not curable and until Banting’s work it was always fatal. It was known that the disease was linked to failure of the pancreas and probably to the cells in it known as the islets of Langerhans. In 1921 Banting devised a possible method for obtaining from these islets the unknown hormone that was suspected of controlling glucose levels and whose absence would cause the disease. J J R Macleod (1876–1935), professor of physiology at Toronto, was not impressed by the research plan or by Banting’s skills, but eventually gave him the use of a university laboratory, experimental dogs and a recently qualified assistant, C H Best (1899–1978), to try the method while Macleod himself went on holiday. In 1922, after 8 months’ work, they announced their success. Extracts of a hormone (insulin) were obtained, and with the help of a chemist, J B Collip (1892–1965), these extracts were purified sufficiently to inject and treat diabetic patients. The effect was dramatic, and since 1923 millions of diabetics have led manageable lives using insulin to control their glucose levels. Industrial production of insulin (from pig pancreas) began in 1923.

In 1923 a Nobel Prize was awarded to Banting and Macleod. Banting was furious at the omission of Best and shared his half-prize with him; Macleod shared his with Collip. Banting became a professor at Toronto. When the Second World War began he joined an army medical unit and researched on war gases, but was killed in an air crash in Newfoundland. In 1926 insulin was isolated in pure form, but it was a generation later before deduced its chemical structure and 1966 before it was made by synthesis; it is a protein molecule built of 51 amino acid units.

Insulins from different mammalian species differ in one or more amino acid units. For diabetics, insulin from pigs or oxen has long been used but from 1978 human insulin has been available by a genetic engineering process based on the bacterium Escherichia coli .

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