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97 years since first insulin treatment

Posted: 24th January 2019

Ninety-seven years ago this month, 14-year old Leonard Thompson lay dying at Toronto General Hospital. Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and weighing only 29 kilograms, he was in a ward with 50 other diabetic children. With no treatment for the disease available, and with their grieving relatives by their sides, the children awaited inevitable death.

Just hours from slipping into a coma, Leonard was selected for an experimental treatment, the injection of a protein called insulin, purified from the pancreas of cattle. Following a remarkable recovery, Thompson’s treatment became the new standard of care for people with diabetes world-wide.

“The discovery of insulin was an amazing step forward for people with type 1 diabetes,” says Professor Helen Thomas, Head of SVI’s Immunology & Diabetes Unit “However, almost a century later, the disease still places an extraordinary burden on individuals and their families, as well as on our healthcare system.”

She goes on to explain that people with type 1 diabetes lack insulin, the hormone that regulates the body’s use of glucose. Insulin is produced by beta cells in the pancreas, which are contained within small clumps of cells called islets. In type 1 diabetes, beta cells are mistakenly attacked and destroyed by the body’s own immune system.

Helen continues, “A diagnosis of type 1 diabetes today means a lifelong need for multiple daily insulin injections or insulin infusion by pump to stay alive, along with frequent blood glucose measurements and strict lifestyle regulation.”

“In our lab, we are studying the precise mechanisms by which destruction of the insulin cells occurs and are working to find ways of preventing it from happening. We have done this through animal studies, using mice that develop diabetes in a similar way to humans. We also use human islets sourced through our involvement in the Australian Islet Transplantation Program. In the lab today, our focus is firmly on translating our studies into humans in order to develop more effective treatments for people with the disease.”

Leonard Thompson lived a further 13 years thanks to the development of insulin, but died at the age of 27 due to diabetic complications. Ninety-seven years after this landmark treatment, the goal of researchers at SVI is not very different from that of the team in Toronto in 1922: to help people with type 1 diabetes live longer and healthier lives.