Canada Invents

Canada Invents – Insulin

One of Canada’s greatest triumphs in the field of medicine was the discovery of insulin in 1922. This groundbreaking finding opened the doors to medical research in Canada and the patenting of insulin surprisingly played a key role in spurring Canadian innovation.

Banting and Best – and let’s not forget Macleod and Collip

Frederick Banting is a household name in Canada as the discoverer of insulin that made treating diabetes possible. Banting began studying medicine at the University of Toronto in 1912; however the program was condensed due to the war. He was required to serve and joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps, first working out of English hospitals and later on the front as a battalion medical officer. After the war, however, he opened a practice and worked part-time at Western University as an anatomy and surgery demonstrator to supplement his income.

The circumstances surrounding the idea that sparked the discovery of insulin have become mythologized over time. Many believe that it came to Banting in a dream, but that is not totally accurate. Having spent most of his day preparing a lecture on carbohydrate metabolism, he ended the day reading an article in a medical journal on diabetes and the function of the pancreas. He laid awake pondering potential links between his lecture and the article he had read when he had an idea for an experiment to isolate the elusive pancreatic secretion scientists had been searching for.

Banting consulted with John Macleod of the University of Toronto, an expert in physiology, as to whether the experiment was feasible. Previously, Banting had no real interest in diabetes and by all accounts this really showed in his initial meetings with Macleod, who was skeptical of Banting and his idea because of this. However, after pondering on Banting’s pitch Macleod came to the conclusion that even a negative result “would be of great physiological value” and offered his assistance to Banting (Bliss).

Friction between the two men has coloured the historical record in terms of who has been recognized for the discovery in the public eye. Charles Best is well known in Canada as Banting’s lab assistant and co-discoverer of insulin. However, it was Macleod who assigned Best to the team, as well as allocated the lab space and equipment they would need to undergo their experiments.

Macleod also brought in James Collip – a biochemist on sabbatical from the University of Alberta. Collip was able to refine the extract created by Banting and Best in such a way that it was consistent and effective, as well as suitable for human use. This was a giant step in making insulin available as a treatment for those with diabetes. In 1922, however, due to quarrels with Banting, he returned to Alberta. Collip and Macleod are lesser know, but made significant contributions without which the discovery of insulin would not have been possible.

A Cure for Diabetes?

Banting and Best’s initial presentation of their research quite frankly did not go well. At that point their extract was unrefined and did not have consistent results, which brought criticism and skepticism from the medical community. However, with Collip’s refined extract in hand they were given the go ahead to practice on human subjects in 1922. The first subject was 14-year old Leonard Thompson, who was on his deathbed with juvenile diabetes.

They administered the extract and at first it looked like a failure. However, upon resuming treatment his condition rapidly improved! From there the team went on to performing clinical trials that were hailed as a medical triumph. Banting and Macleod were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1923 – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Impact in Canada and worldwide

The discovery of insulin quite obviously had broad reaching impact across the world in the treatment of diabetes. At the time, the disease was deadly, with death in juvenile diabetics most often occurring within a year of diagnosis. It also had great effects on shaping medical research in Canada, as well as playing a pivotal role in the debate surrounding the patenting of medical innovations.

At the time of insulin’s discovery, the patenting of medical innovations was quite controversial. It was considered unethical for scientists, universities, and businesses to profit off such innovations. Despite this, the University of Toronto decided after some consultation, that it was actually in the public interest to patent their discovery to maintain quality and affordability of this life-saving treatment. Their patent application issued to patent in Canada on September 17, 1921 under the title “EXTRACT OBTAINABLE FROM THE MAMMALIAN PANCREAS OR FROM RELATED GLANDS OF FISHES”. See the original patent documents on the Canadian Intellectual Property Office website here.

They also licensed insulin to manufacturers. Not only did this give them control over the quality of insulin produced it also generated enough income to allow the University of Toronto to open The Banting Foundation in 1925, which continues to fund biomedical research across Canada.

Works Consulted & Relevant Links 

Timeline with original archival documents documenting discovery of insulin

Medical patenting in Canada

Canadian Encyclopedia  – The Discovery of Insulin

Bliss, Michael. The Discovery of Insulin. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982. Print.

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