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Discovery of Insulin

Updated: Oct 26, 2019


Boslab Bookclub

Please join us for our next book club discussion. There will be a short presentation on the book followed by discussion. The presentation will give enough detail so that everyone will be able to participate in the discussion.

When: Thursday, August 24 at 6:30 pm Where: Boslab; 339R Summer St; Somerville, MA Book: The Discovery of Insulin by Michael Bliss Availability: Used copies of the book are available at Amazon for under $10. It is also available new and in Kindle format.

About the book:

The Discovery of Insulin tells the story of how a small research team found the crucial substance that almost instantly transformed diabetes from a horrific disease and virtual death sentence into a manageable condition. The book lets us enter into the world of medicine and medical research as it existed at the beginning of the last century. Even though the 1920s are not all that long ago, many things about that world are already quite foreign to us today. It was a world in which biomolecules were still totally mysterious black boxes residing firmly in terra incognita. It was also a world before drug regulation or big pharma. Physicians were accustomed acting on their own personal discretion in trying out unproven drugs in ways that seem almost reckless to us now. Many also moved seamlessly between clinical and research roles throughout their careers – it was still an era where physicians were as much scientists as clinicians.

With this as its setting, the book proceeds with the story of a young maverick, one Frederick Banting, a newly-minted surgeon, heavily in debt, who decides to abandon a nascent medical practice and instead tries his hand at unraveling the riddle of diabetes. He is able to wheedle some lab space at the University of Toronto, an assistant and later help from an organic chemist. But he gets no appointment or salary and is never secure about his welcome.

But worse than the physical conditions, is how little information he has to go on. True, it is known that the pancreas is somehow involved. But it’s also clear that of all the accessible juices the pancreas secretes, none are the magic sauce. It’s some other mysterious ’factor’. No one knows anything about the chemistry of this substance -- certainly there is no clue that it is a protein. Other researchers have tried finding it, have come up empty and moved on. The only available assay for it is injection into an animal. And whatever it is, it is fragile. It doesn’t survive the ordinary organic chemistry techniques of the day. It can’t be given orally. In fact Banting’s initial hunch is that it’s so elusive because perhaps it is denatured by one of the pancreas’s other products. Working around that possibility complicates his work immeasurably. It’s a mad quest to be sure. The team is small and even so there is acrimony. Banting’s resources are dwindling. Even his fiance doesn’t understand. She bails and returns his ring.

So there is drama. But also a good deal of science. The description of the research is written from the actual lab notebooks. Thus there is a satisfying amount of detail on Banting and company’s thinking, their lab techniques, what confused them along the way and how they finally sorted it all out and prevailed.

And prevail they did. In the end, there was professional help a plenty to scale production to the very large demand. And there was even a Nobel prize. But best of all the discovery came as a totally miraculous change of fortunes for so many who were facing the bleakest of prospects. Many were living skeletal existences keeping their food intake within whatever tiny residual capacity they had to metabolize it. Others, perhaps most, found no middle ground and died. And now, suddenly, this discovery changed it all. Near normal lives became possible for those with diabetes!

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