Diabetes was recognized by three thousand-year-old civilisations in China and Egypt.
To them, the rapid onset of thirst, the unnatural increased passage of urine and the melting
away of young flesh must have seemed like the curse of a vengeful deity. Throughout history,
diabetes killed every single person who developed it.
It was not until the early 20th century that the search for a cure yielded insulin, a treatment as
enigmatic as the murderous condition it corrects. But the quest for the elixir of life came close
to destroying those who embarked on it.
Dr Fred Banting and Professor John Macleod were given the Nobel Prize in 1923 for the
discovery. Behind their triumph lies a story of rivalry and ambition, of near-failure and wrecked
lives: the tortuous path which eventually led Banting and Macleod, along with chemist Bert
Collip and medical student Charles Best to uncover the treatment for diabetes at a Toronto hospital
two years earlier.
Of insulin and diabetes
The magical qualities of insulin, the hormone whose absence causes Type I diabetes, pervade this drama and make this story as vital today as it was a century ago.
The causes of and triggers for Type I are still not fully understood, and its incidence in children and young people continues to increase. Insulin is the only treatment. It also remains the only common medicine that requires patients to overcome their primal self-defensive instincts and inject it into themselves. Everyone who sees this film will know a diabetic: a friend or relative who uses insulin every day of their lives. But few know the story of its discovery.
Back in the early 1920s, diabetes was a death sentence for all who developed it. It killed more Americans in 1914-18 than died in the First World War. One hundred years on, the production of insulin has been refined, but it is still expensive and exclusive. Eight percent of the UK’s NHS budget is spent on diabetes (Types I and II). For comparison, all cancer treatments in Britain absorb only four percent.
Those diabetics unfortunate enough to be born in less developed or war-torn countries will still die. And diabetes, according to the World Health Organization, remains the biggest single health threat to the world today. In the UK, it is the leading cause of blindness and renal failure in patients of working age.