The Discovery of Insulin

On July 27, 1921, Canadian scientist Frederick Banting became the first person to isolate the hormone insulin for the control of diabetes.  He was only 32 years old when he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine two years later, making him the youngest laureate in that field.

Insulin regulates sugar in the bloodstream.  The hormone was first identified in 1869, in little islands of cell clusters produced by the pancreas.  (“Insulin” comes from the Latin for “little islands.”)  A link was soon established between the pancreas and diabetes – if the pancreas was removed, the subject would develop diabetes – but no one could figure out exactly why.  Scientists believed the pancreas was secreting something that regulates sugar glucose.  But every time they tried to remove the little islands, the cell clusters would die.

Banting realized that the pancreas was also producing digestive juices that were killing the little islands.  By tying off various parts of the organ, he was able to isolate and preserve the part of the pancreas that contained what he called “isletin” (later renamed “insulin”).

There is an interesting side story.  Banting’s two lab assistants, Charles Best and Clark Noble, flipped a coin to see who would take the first shift.  Best won the toss and ended up assisting throughout the summer.  As a result, Banting shared credit for his insulin discovery with the young assistant… as well as half of his Nobel Prize money.  This had to be one of the luckiest coin tosses in history.

Today, almost 400 million people worldwide – more than 8 percent of the adult population – suffer from diabetes and depend on insulin.  Agilent offers several solutions for ensuring the quality of extracted insulin, including Aqueous Size-Exclusion Chromatography.  An Agilent High-Performance Liquid Chromatograph can identify insulin impurities in six minutes.

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