B is for Banting and Best

Today you get a twofer of thinkologists. Frederick Banting is the Canadian researcher and Nobel prize winner who discovered the structure of the hormone insulin. He also came fourth in the quest to find the greatest Canadian. He trained as a doctor and served during the first world war, after which he worked as a doctor. While lecturing in pharmacology, he became interested in diabetes. Diabetes is a condition where excess blood sugar cannot be stored because either because there isn’t enough of the hormone insulin or the body is insensitive to insulin. The inability the regulate blood sugar has severe consequences; including coma and death when blood sugar levels are too high or too low. Long term consequences of the disease include blindness, nerve degeneration and cardiovascular disease.

While Banting was teaching pharmacology at the University of Toronto, he read a paper by Mering, Minkowski and colleagues which stated that some factor secreted by the pancreas involved in sugar metabolism was missing in diabetics. Investigations into isolating and identifying this substance had failed; it seemed that enzymes in the pancreas were destroying the mysterious magical substances before it could be extracted.  He, with his trusty assistant Dr Charles Best, moved into Professor J.J.R. MacLeod’s lab and set about selectively destroying the cells releasing the damaging enzymes, while keeping the islets cells which make the mystery substance alive. With some help from the drug company Ely Lilly, the the team came up with better and better ways of extracting the substance and started testing it in diabetic humans with some success.

Interestingly, it was mere chance that Best was Banting’s assistant. Best and Clark Noble flipped a coin to determine who would assist Banting for the first half of the summer, Best won the toss, ended up staying the whole summer. Now remember that, it’s important.

In 1923, the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology was split between Prof MacLeod and Freddie Banting. Banting, incensed that his trusty sidekick had been snubbed, split his Nobel Prize cash with him. (Poor Clark Noble, loses coin toss – misses out on ground-breaking research, no Nobel Prize money – sad face).

Other interesting landmarks in the history of insulin include the determination of the amino-acid sequence by Fred Sanger (name drop!) in 1951. Before then, proteins were thought to be amorphous blobs; a groundbreaking discovery in protein research. The structure of insulin was discovered by Dorothy Hodgkin, the first time this had been done for any protein. She pioneered a technique known as x-ray crystallography, with which it was possible to actually see the 3-D shape of proteins.

With our current knowledge of insulin, diabetics have a much better quality of life.

Banting’s original papers are freely available through Pubmed

Brief overview of blood sugar regulation is below. Insulin signals to the liver to take up and store excess blood sugar. This can be released when blood sugar is low.

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