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Insulin |

A spotlight on Canada

On May 3, 1922, a clinical trial paper, written by a group of medical researchers, received a standing ovation. The findings presented in the paper marked a life‑changing discovery. Their discovery – insulin.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of a Canadian medical breakthrough that has had a global impact. Today, and everyday, we celebrate the discovery of insulin as a treatment for diabetes.

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The problem…

Diabetes is a chronic health condition that affects how the body manages the amount of sugar in the blood. When we eat, the carbohydrates in food are broken down into sugar and released into the bloodstream. As the level of sugar in the blood rises, the pancreas releases insulin, a hormone which allows sugar to access the body's cells, where it is then used for energy.

In the case of diabetes, the pancreas either produces insufficient or no insulin, or the cells are insensitive to the available insulin. As a result, the sugar accumulates in the blood. Over time, too much sugar in the bloodstream can cause damage to organs, blood vessels, and nerves.


There are three main types of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is typically diagnosed in childhood or adolescence, but can also develop in adulthood. It is characterized by the inability of the pancreas to make insulin. Approximately 5‑10% of those living with diabetes have type 1. The other 90‑95% are living with type 2, which occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin, or the body is not able to use its own insulin effectively.

Type 2 typically develops in adulthood, but is increasingly being seen in youth. Gestational diabetes occurs during pregnancy in about 3‑20% of people, depending on their risk factors. The majority of cases resolve at the end of pregnancy, though individuals with a history of gestational diabetes are at a significantly higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life than those with no history.

The solution…

Genetically engineered, synthetic “human insulin” is used to replace or supplement the insulin that is naturally produced by the body. Human insulin moves the sugar from a person's blood to the cells and signals the liver to store blood sugar for later use, both of which are instrumental in maintaining a healthy blood sugar level. Insulin is life‑sustaining for those with type 1 diabetes.

For those with type 2 diabetes, insulin can help improve blood sugar management and decrease the risk of debilitating, often irreversible complications. It can also be prescribed for people with gestational diabetes to improve maternal and fetal outcomes. Until a cure is found, insulin treatments make living with diabetes manageable and helps reduce complications.

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From left to right: Frederick Banting, Charles Best, James Collip and John Macleod
Banting House National Historic Site and University of Toronto Archives

Collaboration for Change

Monumental change rarely happens in isolation, and the discovery of insulin was no exception. With the help of Macleod, Banting began to build his team. It started with Charles Best, a bachelor's student in physiology and biochemistry, who incidentally later went on to form the Diabetic Association of Ontario, now known as Diabetes Canada. In May 1921, under the supervision of Macleod, the two began their experiments. Next came James Collip, a biochemist and professor at the University of Alberta. Collip joined the team in December 1921 and immediately began refining Banting and Best's pancreatic extracts until they were safe enough to test on humans.

20th Century Breakthrough east

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Leonard Thompson
Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

20th Century Breakthrough…

After many long weeks of hard work, the team felt confident that they were ready to safely start testing on humans. On January 11, 1922, 13 year‑old Leonard Thompson, who was critically ill from the disease, became the first human subject to be injected with the team's pancreatic extracts.

Initially, measurements of Thompson's blood sugar level and ketones deemed the test a failure. As they had done before, the team persevered and continued to refine their solution. Twelve days later they resumed testing, and this time the test was a success. The sugar level in Thompson's blood and urine was normal and his symptoms improved.

west Collaboration for Change

Thank you to

Diabetes Canada
Banting House National Historic Site