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100 years after the discovery of insulin: The road to a cure

One hundred years ago, four researchers made a discovery that changed the conversation about diabetes forever. Thankfully, because of this discovery, diabetes is no longer about a diagnosis; it is now about quality of life. This discovery not only changed Canadian medicine, but the treatment of diabetes for millions of people throughout the world – making it one of Canada’s greatest gifts.

In 1921, the collaboration of Frederick Banting, Charles Best, James Collip and John Macleod led to the isolation and purification of insulin that offered a life-saving treatment for an otherwise deadly disease. By 1923, insulin was made available around the world. Today, approximately 150 million people rely on insulin to live a full and healthy life, and every decade that goes by, new technologies pave the way that make staying healthy while living with diabetes easier than ever before. Canada is at the frontier of this research and many of its innovations.

However, the impact of diabetes should never be underestimated. It can be a huge mental burden for the person living with the disease and their families. For these people, trying to keep their blood sugar in a normal range can feel like they’re walking a tightrope. There is little margin of error, so its control is at the center of any diabetes treatment plan. From the moment they wake up to the minute they fall asleep, diabetes is at the forefront of every decision. The risks of low blood sugar can result in confusion or loss of consciousness. Chronic high blood sugars can result in problems with the eyes, kidneys, nerves, feet and heart to name a few.

Dr. Alice Cheng, an Endocrinologist at the University of Toronto, has spent almost 20 years working with people living with diabetes. She spends her life teaching her patients how to control their disease rather than letting the disease control them. In short, she teaches people with diabetes how to safely tightrope through life.


While insulin stabilizes diabetes, it is still not a cure. From the discovery of Insulin, to customized smart technologies, and the cure of diabetes in mice, Canada’s best researchers and doctors are working day and night to find a cure.

Dr. James Shapiro, Professor of Surgery Medicine and Surgical Oncology at the University of Alberta and Canada Research Chair in Regenerative Medicine, has spent most of his life dedicated to this research and finding a better way to help people living with diabetes. So far, his outstanding work has cured diabetes in mice using human cells.


The hope for the next 100 years is to celebrate both the discovery of insulin and the discovery of a cure. Doctors around Canada and the world are working endlessly to finish what Banting, Macleod, Best and Collip started.

As Dr. Shapiro rightly put it: “If they’d given up early, we wouldn’t have insulin today.” With the release of these two commemorative two-dollar coins into circulation this year, we have an opportunity for a conversation and a motivation to continue the work that’s needed.

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