This content originally appeared on diaTribe. Republished with permission.
By James S. Hirsch
The discovery of insulin in 1921 was heralded as the cure for diabetes. The reality was different.
Insulin, to be sure, could temporarily lower blood sugars to near-normal ranges, but it could also cause hypoglycemia – blood sugars that are too low – that could lead to shakiness and confusion or, in extreme cases, seizures, loss of consciousness, or death. Insulin was a daily, self-administered drug, but if used incorrectly, it could kill a patient just as well as it could save a patient. No self-administered therapy, before or since, has quite those same attributes.
What’s more, insulin’s therapeutic powers were overestimated. Yes, insulin lowered blood sugars, but maintaining near-normal levels was still very difficult – and elevated blood glucose over time was still dangerous. As a result, by the middle of the 1930s, patients who were taking insulin began developing serious complications caused by elevated glucose levels, including damage to the eyes, kidneys, nerves, and heart. Insulin hadn’t cured anything but had turned diabetes from a deadly condition into a chronic condition, and a perilous one at that. At the dawn of the insulin age and for many decades thereafter, even those who understood the importance of maintaining near-normal blood sugars did not have the tools to do so. Blood sugar levels were measured by proxy through urine tests, in which samples had to be boiled for three minutes. Simpler methods were developed by the 1940s, but home glucose monitoring was not available until the late 1970s.
Until then, patients – unaware of their blood sugar levels – gave themselves insulin doses flying blind.
But few people outside the diabetes world knew about the daily rigors and risks of the disease – not only because it affected a relatively small percentage of people but also because the insulin narrative was too powerful.
Diabetes, after all, had been cured or at least resolved. That’s what all the pictures showed. That’s what the headlines blared. And that’s what the ads promoted.
Eli Lilly’s ads, for example, initially touted insulin as “An Epoch in the History of Medicine” and later featured a beautiful bride on her wedding day, kissing her beaming father, with the tagline, “Our favorite picture of insulin.”
Even that picture paled in comparison to the astonishing newspaper and magazine stories about insulin, and not just those about Elizabeth Evans Hughes. Insulin was a redemptive tale about science and survival.
Eva and Victor Saxl were Czech immigrants who fled to Shanghai during World War II. There, Eva was diagnosed with diabetes, and when her insulin supplies ran short, Victor, a textile engineer, found a book that described how to make insulin and, using the animal organs from a nearby slaughterhouse, brewed up enough insulin for his wife to survive. After the war, they immigrated to the United States, and when their story was discovered, they soon found themselves on numerous radio and television shows, including Edward R. Murrow’s, and a movie was also produced – about a husband’s devotion to his wife, expressed through the salvation of insulin.
Other life-saving medical breakthroughs occurred – antibiotics in the 1940s, the polio vaccine in the 1950s – and these would treat more people than insulin. But the unique circumstances of insulin’s discovery, with the young, untested scientists finding the potion that would bring children back from the brink of death, was too dramatic to ignore. In 1988, that story was the subject of a television movie on Masterpiece Theater called “Glory Enough for All,” based on Michael Bliss’s definitive book, “The Discovery of Insulin.”
I watched the movie on PBS when it was released, and it featured the brawling Toronto researchers – Banting and Collip literally came to blows over control of the experiments. But ultimately, the movie was about the triumph of medical science in saving dying children, and among the researchers, there was “glory enough for all.”
And then the movie ended.
There was nothing about living with diabetes – about the wildly fluctuating blood sugars, about the relentless demands, about the injections and the doctor visits and the complications, about the dietary restrictions, about the stigma and the isolation and the limitations of insulin.
“Glory Enough for All” was introduced by Alistair Cooke. An American-born Brit with a silver tongue, Cooke was enthralled not only by insulin’s inspirational story but also by the phrase “islets of Langerhans,” used to describe the island of pancreatic cells discovered by Paul Langerhans. “Islets of Langerhans” just rolled off Alistair Cooke’s tongue. To him, insulin was not just a miracle. It was poetry.
The lyrical beauty of insulin was lost on patients. Many of them, in fact, were frustrated that their own stories weren’t being heard. The parents of young patients were frustrated as well.
In 1970, a professional singer in Philadelphia, Lee Ducat, had a 10-year-old boy with type 1 diabetes, and she was miffed by the breezy disregard of his doctor, who told her that “insulin was the cure.” Ducat knew that wasn’t true, so with several other parents, she formed the first chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation (which is now the JDRF). Other parents soon opened chapters in New York, Washington, New Jersey, and Miami, and their mission was to educate the public about the stark challenges of diabetes in hopes of raising money and finding a cure.
They had no use for the American Diabetes Association, which was founded in 1940 and for many years was little more than a social club and referral service for physicians. As far as the parents were concerned, the ADA was complicit in perpetuating the jaunty insulin narrative that had hurt the cause for decades. Unless the truth about diabetes was known, how could lawmakers, regulators, philanthropists, and journalists – not to mention clinicians – do what had to be done to improve the lives of people with diabetes?
That question was driven home when the JDF chapter in Miami bought a full-page newspaper ad in 1972 to publicize its cause. The ad featured a little boy in a crib holding a glass syringe, and it described the many complications that could arise from diabetes, including blindness and amputations. The headline read, “The Quiet Killer.”
On the day the ad appeared, Marge Kleiman, whose son has type 1, was working in the JDF office, and the phone rang.
“I’m Charles Best,” the caller said, “and I discovered insulin.”
Now retired, Best had become an icon who, after Fred Banting died in 1941, carried the mantle for the Nobel-winning team that had discovered insulin. Best had been praised by the pope, the queen of England, and other heads of state, and he had given the keynote address at the ADA’s first meeting and later served as its president. He happened to be in Miami on the day the JDF ad appeared, and he was outraged.
“What kind of propaganda are you using?” he screamed. “You’re frightening people! This is not the way it is!”
Kleiman knew better. “Dr. Best, what you did was wonderful,” she said. “It allowed people to live longer. But we’re not trying to frighten people. If you tell the truth, maybe they can avoid these complications. Please don’t tell us to keep quiet.”
The JDRF, now a massive international organization focused primarily on type 1, has continued to tell the truth about diabetes – and fund research – ever since, but changing the insulin narrative was not going to be easy.
Patients could at least take solace that the insulins kept getting better. The first extended-action insulins were introduced in 1936 and continued with widely used NPH insulin (1946) and the Lente insulins (1951). But the real improvement came in the 1970s, spurred by concerns about actual insulin supply. Meat consumption was declining, and slaughterhouses were cutting production, while the number of people with diabetes had been rising steadily (in 1976, there were about 5 million Americans with the disease). At some point, insulin demand could outstrip the animal-based supply.
As described in the book Invisible Frontiers: The Race to Synthesize a Human Gene, by Stephen S. Hall and James D. Watson, the specter of an insulin shortage triggered a race to develop genetically engineered insulin using recombinant DNA technology. Investigators succeeded by inserting the insulin gene into bacteria, which produced insulin that was chemically identical to its naturally produced counterpart.
The first human insulins, Humulin (made by Eli Lilly) and Novolin (made by Novo Nordisk), were introduced in the 1980s. Whether they were superior to animal-based insulins is a matter of debate, but they alleviated fears about an impending global insulin shortage.
Moreover, researchers soon discovered that changing the order of two amino acids in the human insulin molecule created a faster-acting formulation, and that led to the introduction of Humalog (1996) and Novolog (1999). Known as “insulin analogs” because they are more analogous to the body’s natural release of insulin, they were considered clear advancements. Another huge leap came with long-lasting basal insulin analogs, specifically Lantus (by Sanofi in 2000) and Levemir (by Novo Nordisk in 2005). These insulins keep blood sugar levels consistent during periods of fasting and, typically taken once a day, replicate the insulin release of a healthy pancreas. They were immensely popular and also used by many type 2 patients – Lantus was a $5 billion a year drug by 2011.
The improved insulins changed how patients cared for themselves, as the new formulations led to “basal-bolus” therapy – a 24-hour insulin complemented by a mealtime insulin – and that became the standard of care for type 1 diabetes. (Insulin pumps use the same basal-bolus framework.)
A new era of diabetes care, thanks to these insulin breakthroughs, appeared to beckon.
Stay tuned for part three of this riveting story next week!
I want to acknowledge the following people who helped me with this article: Dr. Mark Atkinson, Dr. David Harlan, Dr. Irl Hirsch, Dr. David Nathan, Dr. Jay Skyler, and Dr. Bernard Zinman. Some material in this article came from my book, “Cheating Destiny: Living with Diabetes.”
James S. Hirsch, a former reporter for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, is a best-selling author who has written 10 nonfiction books. They include biographies of Willie Mays and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter; an investigation into the Tulsa race riot of 1921; and an examination of our diabetes epidemic. Hirsch has an undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a graduate degree from the LBJ School of Public Policy at the University of Texas. He lives in the Boston area with his wife, Sheryl, and they have two children, Amanda and Garrett. Jim has worked as a senior editor and columnist for diaTribe since 2006.
Read more about American Diabetes Association (ADA), blood glucose/sugar, history, Humalog, insulin, insulin pumps, Intensive management, JDRF, Lantus, Levemir, Lilly Diabetes (Eli Lilly), low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), Novo Nordisk, NovoLog, NPH and regular insulin, Sanofi.