Technology pioneers: Sir Frederick Banting

Technology pioneers: Sir Frederick Banting

Sir Frederick Banting was a Canadian chemist and scientist who received worldwide renown and was awarded the 1923 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of insulin, which he shared with Charles Best.

Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs when insulin, a key hormone that controls blood sugar levels, is not developed or used by the body. The condition was recorded in the Ebers Papyrus as early as 1550 BCE, which reported a disorder marked by regular or excessive urination— although it was debated whether this applies to polyurea due to diabetes or frequent urination due to urinary tract infections.

The diabetes prognosis was still quite low at the turn of the 20th century and no effective treatment was known; affected children were unlikely to live beyond their teens and people living with the condition had tragically short periods of life.

Banting was born to William Thompson Banting and Margaret Grant in Alliston, Ontario in November 1891.

Researchers such as Joseph von Mering and Oskar Minkowski had previously determined the importance of pancreas in diabetes, as its absence in dogs caused severe diabetes immediately. The pancreas is one organ, composed of two glands, to provide some meaning.

The first gland contains exocrine cells containing digestive enzymes that are absorbed into the first part of the small intestine as part of a digestive fluid through the pancreatic duct. The second gland consists of endocrine cells that function as small cell islands, or Langerhans islets, and releases hormones that are released into the bloodstream.

Extensive attempts have never been effective in removing insulin from the pancreas to re-administer it to patients. Banting came across an article written by Moses Baron in 1920 while writing a lecture on the pancreas, which inspired a new theory and provided a solution to the problem of insulin production before it could be killed.

Therefore, Banting assumed that only the hormone generating cells would be left from which insulin could be derived by killing the cells containing the harmful enzymes. In 1921, in the laboratory of J.R.R. McLeod, a professor of physiology at the University of Toronto, Banting began working on this theory.

Banting sold insulin patent rights to The University of Toronto for $1, famously claiming: “Insulin is not mine, it belongs to the planet.” This allowed it to be mass-produced, making it easily available to the public for diabetes treatment.