Today, millions of people around the world live with type 1 diabetes (T1D), including an estimated 1.6 million in the United States alone—all because of an incredible discovery made 100 years ago.  

In 1921, Sir Frederick Banting and his team discovered insulin, and with this development, a remarkable change occurred: T1D was no longer a terminal illness.  

Over the course of the next century, Banting’s work and the research that followed would go on to save and improve the lives of millions. To celebrate 100 years of insulin, let’s look back at the interesting history and evolution of this life-saving medication. 


The Discovery of Insulin 

The story of insulin begins on October 31, 1920, when Canadian medical practitioner Frederick Banting woke from a dream with an idea inspired by research he had read. He wrote a short hypothesis in his notebook 

Diabetus [sic]. Ligate pancreatic ducts of dog. Keep dogs alive till acini degenerate leaving islets. Try to isolate the internal secretion of these and relieve glycosurea [sic].

By May of 1921, Banting and his new lab assistant, Charles Best, were investigating his hypothesis in a University of Toronto laboratory supplied by physiology professor J.J.R. MacLeod. Banting and Best worked quickly and made incredible progress on their pancreatic extract over the summer. Later that year, biochemistry professor James B. Collip was brought on to purify the extract.  

On January 23, 1922, the purified extract was administered to 14-year-old patient Leonard Thompson. The effects were remarkable, with the near-comatose Thompson’s blood glucose levels significantly reduced.  

In a paper presented to the Association of American Physicians later that year, this extract was officially given a name: insulin. And the rest, as they say, is history.  

Word of insulin’s efficacy spread across the medical community like wildfire, and international demand for this new life-saving medication was very high. Over the next two years, production of insulin was scaled up and refined throughout Canada, the United States, and Europe.  

In January 1923, Banting, Best, and Collip obtained the American patents for both insulin and their method of making it. They sold the patents to the University of Toronto for just $1 each, with Banting reportedly saying, “Insulin does not belong to me, it belongs to the world.” Later that year, Banting and MacLeod were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Banting split his half of the prize with Best, and MacLeod shared his with Collip.  


A Century of Innovation: Insulin Research and Improvement  

Banting and Best’s pancreatic extract has come a long way since 1921. With each new development, insulin becomes a more effective, flexible medication that improves the quality of life for people with T1D.  

Individuals who have been living with the condition for decades likely recall some major improvements to insulin over the years, including these notable developments: 

  • 1982 — Humulin becomes the first commercially available biosynthetic insulin. This synthetic drug, which is produced through genetic alteration of e. coli bacteria, reduces allergic reactions to insulin and eliminates the need to use animal pancreases to produce insulin. 
  • 1996 — The FDA approves Humalog, the first precisely engineered insulin analog. Humalog and other analogs work more like real insulin produced by the pancreas. 
  • 2010s — A new generation of insulin analogs is born. These include ultra-long action insulins, which reduce the number of injections needed as well as the risk of hypoglycemia, and ultra-fast action insulins, which provide greater flexibility around eating. 

These advancements and many others—alongside developments in insulin administration and blood glucose testing technology—have had a profoundly positive effect on the lives of people living with T1D.  


T1D Exchange at the Insulin100 Symposium  

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of insulin and the century of progress that followed, the University of Toronto is hosting the Insulin100 Symposium on April 15-16. This comprehensive virtual event will feature discussions, presentations, and more—all for free. By registering for this online event, attendees can view all Symposium content at any time before, during, or after the conference. 

On April 15 and 16, 2021, speakers will participate in live moderated discussions covering a range of topics, from beta cell and islet immunity, to modern insulin delivery, and beyond. Several pre-recorded presentations have also been shared in the weeks leading up to the conference, all of which are available for viewing on the Insulin100 site. 

One such presentation is “Insights from the T1D Exchange Experience” by Dr. David Maahs of Stanford University and the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. An experienced scholar and clinician in pediatric endocrinology, Dr. Maahs currently serves as Steering Committee member and Director of International Collaborations at T1D Exchange 

Dr. Maahs’ Insulin100 presentation provides an in-depth look at some of the research supported by T1D Exchange. From the development of nasal glucagon to treat severe hypoglycemia, to the study of disparities in access to diabetes technology, and much more, T1D Exchange and its partners have enabled significant progress in diabetes research.  

As Dr. Maahs highlights in his presentation, the organization’s work wouldn’t be possible without the participation of over 80 clinical centers, hundreds of clinical investigators and research teams, and more than 25,000 participants.  


To learn more, check out Dr. Maahs’ presentation any time by registering for the Insulin100 Symposium