by Anne Munier
Leonard, a Toronto teenager, arrived at the hospital weak and pale, his hair falling out. Like everyone else who had Type 1 diabetes 100 years ago, he was dying.
People with Type 1 diabetes (let’s call if T1D for short) stop producing the hormone insulin. In fact, their immune system -- which should be busy fighting off diseases -- gets confused, and starts killing the body’s own insulin-producing cells!
Diagram credit: MyHealthDigest
That’s a big deal, because insulin moves food energy (glucose) out of our blood, and into our body’s cells. Without it, we don’t get much energy from food. Then sugar accumulates in our blood, eventually causing a lot of damage. T1D affects children mostly, and, back in the day, they would generally die within a few weeks or months of being diagnosed.
Symptoms of T1D include:
1. Having to pee more than usual, to flush out all that sugar. (Thousands of years ago doctors noticed that ants were attracted to the urine of T1D patients, because it was sweet. The ant trick helped to diagnose new patients!)
2. Being really thirsty (to replace all that lost fluid)
3. Not having much energy (no surprise there- food energy doesn’t get where it needs to go!)
Back to Leonard. At 14 years old, he weighed only weighed 65 pounds. That was partly due to the diabetes, but mostly it was because he was barely eating. A “starvation diet” was a cruel, but popular, T1D treatment, which could extend life by several months.
|Leonard before and after treatment|
But this story has a happy ending.
A small research team at the University of Toronto, led by Dr.’s Banting and Best, were removing and purifying bits of the pancreas (the organ where insulin is made) from dogs and cows. They thought that injecting this into diabetic patients might provide their bodies with the insulin they so desperately needed. Leonard was about to be their first human guinea pig.
|Three heroes of diabetes treatment|
(Dr. Best, lab dog 408, and Dr. Banting) -
University of Toronto
Their first try was a failure -- all that happened was that poor Leonard developed an allergic reaction. Undaunted, the researchers purified the extract some more, and tried again. This time the results were quick, and they were amazing. Leonard’s blood glucose went down to near-normal levels within a day. He brightened, became more active, and felt stronger. And survived!
After Leonard came other children -- 6 year old Teddy; Elizabeth, somehow still hanging on after 3 years of the starvation diet; Elsie, in a coma, revived by insulin. Insulin has since saved the lives of millions of people.
Letter to Dr. Banting from a much-
improved Teddy (U. of Toronto)
While the treatment has become more sophisticated, T1D troopers still inject themselves with insulin every day, and carefully control their food (especially carbohydrates). There’s still no cure -- yet.
About one in every 100 Canadians has T1D. Whether we realize it or not, we’ve all been impacted by insulin, because we all know and care about people whose lives it has saved.
All this to say: Happy 100th anniversary everyone!