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Insulin: A story of drama and intrigue


Banting and Best became famous, but what about MacLeod and Collip? Do we learn anything about the history of the discovery of insulin in high school biology? It could be a story of early biotech in Canada. It could also be the story of how two Canadians were denied their place in Nobel Prize history. And what is the connection to the absorption of oxygen and the elimination of carbon dioxide in the lungs by diffusion?

If you thought both Frederick Banting and Charles Best won the Nobel Prize for discovering insulin you would be only partially correct. If you don't associate the name JJ MacLeod and JP Collip with the discovery of insulin you would not be alone. I ended up going down that rabbit hole when I looked at a list of Canadian Nobel Prize winners. Where was Charles Best's name on the list? I realized that he was not awarded the prize. What about MacLeod and Collip? Why do these names not come to my mind when I think of the story of insulin?

Here is what I learned.

Frederick Banting is the first Canadian to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. He was born and raised on a farm in a small Ontario town about halfway between Toronto and the Georgian Bay. He was part of a class of medical students fast-tracked to provide doctors for the First World War effort. He really did learn his skills in the trenches. On his return from the war, he set up private practice in London, Ontario as well as lecturing part time at the University of Western Ontario. Through his reading, Banting was convinced that secretions from the pancreas or the islets of Langerhans were involved in controlling blood sugar and he had an idea of how to prove it.

Banting was not a research scientist. There are a variety of interpretations of the role of JJ MacLeod in the discovery of insulin. What we do know for sure is that as a biochemist and physiologist leading a lab which studied carbohydrate chemistry, he was indeed a research scientist. He controlled the lab space and he mentored Banting in the ways of the scientific method, especially in the areas of proper controls and communication of results. Additionally, it was MacLeod who put one of his top students, Charles Best, in touch with Banting. As an undergraduate, Best had studied physiology and biochemistry. Now he was studying medicine. Banting and Best worked through a hot sweaty Toronto summer while MacLeod was away visiting his homeland, Scotland. It was during this time that they successfully demonstrated that an extract from the pancreas could reduce the blood glucose levels in diabetic induced dogs. They were having difficulty further purifying the extract to remove allergy causing antigens.

James Collip, a research scientist from the University of Alberta, was on a sabbatical, spending six months in the MacLeod laboratory. He brought his expertise to purify and do successful clinical testing of the extract.

The last player in this story that I will mention is August Krogh. He was awarded the 1920 Nobel Prize for demonstrating oxygen and carbon dioxide diffuse passively through the capillaries. While on a speaking tour in the United States his wife was diagnosed with mature onset diabetes (now known as type 2 diabetes). Through his network, he learned of the work in MacLeod's lab so he stopped through Toronto on his way home to Denmark. He took with him from this visit permission to prepare and sell insulin on an industrial scale. This was the beginning of the major pharmaceutical giant - Novo Nordisk.

It was Krogh who nominated Banting and MacLeod for the Nobel Prize. He did not mention Best or Collip in his nomination and at that time, the only persons who could be considered for the prize were those who had been nominated. Thus, Charles Best and James Collip go down in history as not winning the Nobel Prize. Banting shared his portion of the award with Best. MacLeod honoured Collip with half of his award.

Entire books and movies have been made depicting the friction and drama among these four driven individuals. Their efforts collectively led to saving many thousands of lives from diabetes mellitus, which had previous been effectively a death sentence for those persons diagnosed with the disease. I have only touched on the basics here.

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Insulin: A story of drama and intrigue

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