Insulin co-discovered by London, Ont.’s Frederick Banting 100 years ago today

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Insulin was co-discovered as a powerful treatment for diabetes 100 years ago today by London, Ont., resident and researcher Frederick Banting.

A statue of Sir Frederick Banting at the Banting House in London, Ont. Banting co-discovered insulin as a life-saving treatment for diabetes in 1921. (Travis Dolynny/CBC)

Insulin was co-discovered as a powerful treatment for diabetes 100 years ago today by London, Ont., resident and researcher Frederick Banting. 

The treatment was discovered on Nov. 14, 1921, but the first dose of it was administered on Jan. 23, 1922, to a Toronto teen.

Charles Best, originally from West Pembroke, Maine, was also responsible for this breakthrough.

Prior to their findings, Type 1 diabetes — which is linked more to genetics than lifestyle factors — would result in death. To this day, insulin is the most effective treatment for this kind of diabetes, saving the lives of millions of people.

Banting, right, and Charles Best on the roof of the medical building at the University of Toronto with one of the first diabetic dogs to receive the hormone insulin. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Insulin ‘conceived’ in London

Dr. Stewart Harris, the Primary Care Diabetes Support Program’s medical director at St. Joseph’s Health Care London, says that “insulin was conceived here in London, Ontario, and raised in Toronto” by Banting.

Banting won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1923 for this discovery. It was the first time that a Canadian was awarded the prize.

Insulin was distributed for public use that same year, and it’s a discovery that Harris believes “all Canadians should be very proud and aware of.”

“We’d have had a lot more deaths and we would not be recognized as a world leader,” Harris told CBC News. “We still are today.

“I think it really leapfrogged Canada to the front of medical science and discovery,” he said. “I look at insulin discovery as a foundational discovery for Canadian research and Canada on the world stage as a major leader in scientific discovery and especially diabetes.”

London’s Banting House was where Banting resided when he came up with the idea that led to the insulin discovery. It is now a museum and designated as a national historic site. (Banting House NHS)

The fight is far from over

Despite this miraculous innovation 100 years ago, Harris still described diabetes — particularly Type 2, which is commonly associated with obesity — as an “epidemic.”

According to the World Health Organization, there are approximately 422 million people with diabetes globally, and about 1.5 million deaths each year as a result of it. 

“One of the biggest challenges is to ensure that we have access for all to these life-saving therapies,” Harris said. “And that is one of the globally — and here in Canada — one of the biggest challenges we have. Insulin is not cheap to make.”

He said that this could affect people like new immigrants and the “working-poor person” under the age of 65. 

“Even in my own clinic we run into this, to try and help people who don’t have insurance coverage — whether it’s government or through their jobs — to be able to afford insulin therapy. That’s still a major barrier.”

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