A 20th Century Medical Miracle and the Hunt for a COVID19 Vaccine

The hospital ward had beds for as many as fifty children.

Dr. Banting and his associate quietly stepped inside. Bed after bed was occupied by a child, comatose and dying from diabetic ketoacidosis. Grieving parents sat bedside, awaiting the inevitable. 

The year was 1922. Medical researchers Fredrick Banting and his assistant Charles Best had been studying type 1 diabetes for the past two years. Using dogs, Banting and Best isolated insulin and treated (induced) diabetes in the animals. 

We’ve known about type 1 diabetes for centuries. The condition is well documented in ancient Egyptian, Hindu, and Chinese medical records. Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a second-century Greek physician, described diabetes as “the melting down of flesh and limbs into urine”. 

When the pancreas no longer produces insulin, people with type 1 diabetes cannot metabolize carbohydrates. Without insulin, patients waste away and suffer greatly, no matter how much they eat. The death rate for type 1 diabetes, prior to insulin therapy, was 100%. 

By the nineteenth century, we realized the role of carbohydrate metabolism in diabetes. Doctors attempted to control the disease with diet – prescribing only meat or fat for suffering children. On severely calorie-restricted diets, children lost weight and were critically malnourished.

Still, instead of death in a few weeks, children might survive a year. 

Encouraged by their success with dogs in the lab, Banting and Best injected an emaciated 14-year-old boy with insulin obtained from a cow in January 1922. Daily injections over the next twelve days dropped his blood sugar until it was no longer detectable in his urine. 

Soon after, Banting and Best walked into the solemn and quiet ward in a Toronto hospital, filled with comatose children. Banting and Best went bed to bed and injected each child with insulin. 

As they injected the last child, the first child woke up. 

One by one, all the children awoke from coma. 

A room filled with impending death became a place of hope. 

The 1923 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Fredrick Banting and John Macleod, in whose laboratory Banting and Best worked. Banting shared his prize with Best. 

The Eli Lilly Company improved the process for obtaining insulin from animals and sold the patent to the University of Toronto for $1.00. 

For the next six decades, insulin for human use was obtained from the pancreases of pigs and cows, a difficult and expensive process.

Everything changed in 1982. Using new genetic technology, the gene for making insulin was snipped out of human DNA and inserted into the DNA of a bacteria. The new transgenic bacteria were cloned. Entrepreneur Bob Swanson and his partner biologist Herbert Boyer grew vats and vats of the bacterial cells, all of which churned out huge quantities of insulin. 

HUMAN insulin.

For the first time, human insulin was produced in enormous quantities and made available to people with diabetes. 

Human insulin was the first genetically engineered drug approved by the FDA. Today, hundreds of medical conditions are treated with recombinant DNA drugs.

Objections to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) play on fears of the unknown. All too often, biotechnology is rejected without fully understanding the underlying science.

Fear of GMO technology results in absurd nonsense like the marketing of “NON-GMO” labeled salt. Salt contains no DNA to modify.

The top five contenders in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine use genetic information to teach our immune system to fight a viral infection. Already the anti-GMO movement is joining forces with anti-vaccine groups. Already vaccines developed using biotechnology are suspect.

Drugs developed using biotechnology have saved countless lives. A new generation of bioengineered vaccines are ready to join to the fight. 

November is National Diabetes Awareness month.

Thank you, Drs. Banting and Best. 

And thanks to the pioneers in recombinant drug therapies.

Best and Banting
National Museum of American History – Smithsonian

And as You speak

A hundred billion creatures catch your breath

Evolving in pursuit of what You said

If it all reveals Your nature so will I

(Hillsong United So Will I)

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