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What do the Canadian one-hundred-dollar bill, vats of yeast, and the 1923 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine have in common? Insulin!
The hormone insulin is created by our pancreas and was co-discovered back in 1921 here in Canada by Canadian researcher Sir Frederick Banting, and Scottish researcher J. J. R. Macleod. Insulin helps to regulate our metabolism of carbohydrates and encourages sugar (specifically glucose) in our bloodstream to be absorbed by our liver, skeletal muscles, and our fat cells. People living with diabetes have difficulty naturally regulating their blood glucose levels, and often require assistance from insulin injections. But how do we get or make enough insulin to use as a therapy? Through ongoing research and discovery.
Innovation around insulin continued after it was first discovered. Back in the 20’s the primary producers of medical insulin were cattle and pigs. Getting the insulin from those sources was a laborious process though, with low outputs, so scientists worked hard to find more efficient alternatives. In the 1980’s researchers cracked the case: they could use microorganisms like yeast to create lots of insulin in the lab! These researchers were able to isolate the genetic code in humans that encoded insulin production. Using biotechnology tools, they were able to introduce this small section of DNA into the genetic code of yeast. The cellular machinery inside the yeast then uses this as a blueprint and starts to produce the insulin protein at the same time as it produces its own proteins. The insulin proteins are then separated from the yeast cells and purified to create insulin products that are suitable for use in humans.
To maximize the amount of insulin being created the yeast is grown under favorable conditions (right temperature, lots of sugar to eat, the correct level of moisture) in huge vats almost like a brewery, where the yeast work like cell factories that pump out insulin. Just ten liters of yeast solution can make enough insulin to help 10,000 people! Millions of people around the world living with diabetes benefit from synthetic insulin produced by yeast to regulate their blood sugar levels.
Following the extraordinary 1921 discovery of insulin (which is featured on the one-hundred-dollar bill, alongside the words ‘medical innovation’) Sir Banting and his collaborators sold the (now expired) patent for insulin to the University of Toronto for only one dollar! They believed that insulin was an essential medicine for those who needed it, and that it should be readily available. Technology has made insulin more available than ever before, and no doubt further medical discoveries will allow for advancements in the way that diabetes can be treated, which is of great importance when we consider that one third of Canadians are living with diabetes or prediabetes.
To read about diabetes research we are funding click here.