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The History of Diabetes - 100 years of Insulin!

Today in 2022 we are able to diagnose diabetes with a range of blood tests by looking at sugar levels and more detailed autoimmune responses. In this article diabetes we are referring to Type 1 diabetes.

It has taken a long time to understand this disease and research and studies are continually carried out to discover more.

Frequent urination was the first documentation that signalled signs of diabetics back in 1550 BC. Ancient texts have shown that it was known that diabetics had a sweet urine, and ancient Indians used ants to test for diabetes to see if they were attracted to the sugar.

A few millennia later in the 1800's scientists were able to develop chemical tests that were able to detect the presence of sugar in urine. This must have come as a relief to the people who, from 1675, were being used as ‘water testers’ to taste if a patient’s urine was sweet.

Today we are fully aware of how important it is to eat a healthy diet, the role it has on the body and how it affects blood sugars.This knowledge has been a long time coming. During food rationing in the 1870’s it was noted that diabetic patients’ symptoms improved. This led to a series of fad diets. In 1919, fasting and exercise were in fashion and Dr. Frederick Allen of the Rockefeller Institute in New York published his “Total Dietary Regulations in the Treatment of Diabetes”


Insulin is the key to helping diabetics. Today it is easily available. Pumps that help to regulate insulin in the body are getting to be normal, helping a diabetic’s life to become easier.

The importance of insulin was first identified in 1889, when it was noted that removing a dog’s pancreas could induce diabetes. Then in 1900 more research found that injecting pancreatic juices into a patient could help to control diabetes.

The Discovery of Insulin

The real breakthrough came in 1921 when Insulin was discovered by Frederick Banting. This was a momentous discovery since at that time diabetic patients often did not live longer than a year or two. Research has since shown the cause of diabetes: cells called islet cells produce insulin and it is these that are destroyed in diabetes.

It was now known that insulin was needed to treat the disease. But how to make it? Initial research tried making insulin from ground up pancreas cells, but this was unsuccessful. There needed to be a way of extracting insulin from the pancreas without destroying it.

After many experiments, success was achieved using the pancreas of cattle. On the 11th January 1922 insulin was first used to treat diabetes in a human. In May 1922, insulin began being mass produced. Diabetes is no longer a death sentence.

How Insulin Is Made Today

Animal insulin isn’t used much anymore, but some people find that insulin from animals works best for them. It is usually from a cow or pig.

Human insulin is synthetic and made in a laboratory using recombinant DNA technology. It is designed to be like insulin made in the human body.

The insulin molecule is like a string of beads and scientists have managed to alter the position of some of these “beads”. This is genetic engineering.

In this way, scientists can create insulin analogs, in other words insulin with specific attributes. These days there are five different types of insulin:

  • Rapid-acting insulin is taken shortly before or after a meal. It works quickly and is often taken alongside an intermediate or long acting insulin, The amount taken is dependent on the carbohydrates eaten

  • Short-acting insulin is similar to rapid acting but is designed to be taken 25 mins before a meal is eaten

  • Mixed insulin is a mixture of short and long acting insulins. This is taken before a meal and no other type of insulin is needed.

  • Intermediate-acting insulin acts throughout the day, taken once or twice each day

  • Long-acting insulin is usually taken once a day at the same time each day

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