Prior to the first successful use of insulin in 1921, type 1 diabetes was a dreaded illness because it was always fatal. Diabetes was dreaded as coma and death would occur within days or weeks, but almost certainly within a couple of months from onset of symptoms. It was known that sugar worsened the condition, so sometimes, life could be extended by a year or two by totally eliminating carbohydrates from the diet. This did not save the patient, they would not have a good quality of life over this extended time and many would die from malnutrition instead.
In 1920, Frederick Banting was a Canadian Junior Doctor with an idea of how to isolate insulin, which he proposed was an “antidiabetic” solution. Banting proposed that by injecting this solution into diabetic patients, they would no longer be suffering from diabetes. He was allowed a grant to trial his idea, along with his collegue Charles H. Best. In January 1922, Leonard Thompson was a 14 year old boy near death, feeling there was nothing more to lose, his family allowed Banting & Best to inject Leonard with their new anti-diabetic substance. To everyone’s surprise, Leonard rapidly awoke from his diabetic coma and regained full strength and health.
Banting then needed more patients to test this substance on, he went to the children’s ward of a Toronto hospital, where over 50 young patients lay in a coma dying. One by one, the children were injected with a substance that later became known as insulin. As the last of the children were injected, the first were awaking from their diabetic coma’s. This was seen as a medical miracle and in 1923, Banting received the Nobel Prize for his discovery of insulin, he donated his prize money to medical research and sold the patent for the substance that later became known as insulin for only half a Canadian Dollar. Banting did this to ensure that everyone who needed insulin could get it and selflessly took no payment for himself to ensure insulin would be available to everyone.
Sadly, almost 100 years on, insulin is not freely available to everyone in the world who needs it. In the UK, we are fortunate enough to have the NHS to provide our supplies, other developed nations have free or heavily subsidised schemes, be this from the government or from insurance based schemes. Families in the developing world are not so fortunate and have to fund their own supplies. Costing up to 70% of a household income, many families can not afford this and inevitably, children still die from lack of insulin. In 2015, insulin should not be a luxury and no-one should die because they can not access essential life saving medical supplies.
Banting & Best never intended for insulin to become a profitable monopoly only available to few. In their own words:
“When the details of the method of preparation are published, anyone would be free to prepare the extract, but no one could secure a profitable monopoly.”
What would Banting think to know that sadly, this is happening, despite selflessly giving his patent away and never profiting from his discovery? Please comment below.
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This is the first of two posts The Pendsey Trust are publishing for diabetes awareness month, be sure to check back on World Diabetes Day, Saturday 14th November, for the second post, which will look at what a cure means.