In 2019, approximately 463 million adults were living with diabetes and this number is set to rise in the future, as the International Diabetes Federation reports.
If it wasn’t for insulin, these people wouldn’t be able to live. The discovery and development of synthetic insulin has helped to change the lives of millions of people with diabetes, a health condition in which the body doesn’t process food correctly so that it can be used as energy.
What, exactly, is synthetic insulin?
With that in mind, let’s explore how insulin is made in a lab. We’ll start by looking at how insulin was discovered as something that could be made by humans to save lives, and how it’s being developed.
The History Of Insulin
The history of insulin goes back to the 19th century, when in 1889 German researchers Oskar Minkowski and Joseph von Mering discovered that when the pancreas was removed from dogs, these animals experienced diabetes that killed them.
This caused them to research and discover the idea that the pancreas was the organ that produced insulin.
It was after some time that researchers fine-tuned this discovery by saying that clusters of specialized cells in the pancreas were responsible for insulin.
Then, in 1910, Sir Edward Albert Sharpey-Shafer found that just one chemical was not present in the pancreas in people who were suffering from diabetes. He was the one who named it, calling it insulin for the first time. Insulin comes from the Latin word “insula,” which means “island.”
It took more research on animals to take this research further. In 1921, surgeon Frederick Banting and his assistant found a way to remove insulin from a dog’s pancreas. They used it to treat a dog who had severe diabetes and they managed to help him survive for 70 days.
When they ran out of the substance, the dog died. These researchers teamed up with other colleagues to develop a purer type of insulin, and this time it was drawn from cattle pancreases.
Amazingly, in 1922, a young boy who was dying from diabetes in Canada was the first person to receive an insulin injection. All it took was 24 hours for the young boy, named Leonard Thompson, to experience normal blood glucose levels again. Naturally, the exciting news about insulin became a global phenomenon!
However, it was soon discovered that using insulin from animals wasn’t the best solution. It caused allergic reactions in human recipients, which led to the first genetically engineered human insulin that was produced in 1978. It made use of E. coli bacteria! In 1982, the first human insulin was sold.
What, Exactly, Is Insulin?
Is insulin a protein or a hormone?
In case you didn’t know, insulin is a hormone that’s produced by the pancreas. In people who have diabetes, the pancreas has become damaged and therefore cannot properly produce this vital substance that the body needs.
Insulin is responsible for how the body processes sugar. The body’s cells need to have sugar for energy but this sugar can’t enter them directly.
So, after you eat food and your blood sugar increases, cells in the pancreas release insulin into the bloodstream. This hormone attaches itself to cells and “tells” them to absorb sugar from the blood. But it also has some other interesting functions.
If your body has more sugar than your cells need, insulin will store the excess sugar in the liver. If your blood sugar becomes low, these reserves will be released. In this way, insulin helps to balance your blood sugar so that they’re within a normal range.
If you have diabetes, it basically means that your body’s not releasing the insulin that it needs. This results in cells of the body being starved for energy and seeking it from different sources, which can lead to life-threatening complications.
How Is Insulin Made By Biotechnology?
To help keep people with diabetes healthy, insulin is made synthetically.
Back in 1978, researchers at a biotech company called Genentech found a human gene for insulin and put it into a strain of E. coli bacteria. This produced insulin, and as we mentioned earlier, this first example of engineered human insulin hit the market in 1982 under the name Humulin.
Interestingly, that biotechnology is still used for research today and it creates thousands of insulin varieties that are helping scientists and researchers to find better ways to treat diabetes as well as a variety of other health conditions.
The use of synthetic insulin became a popular topic of research after Humulin was such a success. By modifying the insulin gene, scientists have been able to develop new types of insulin.
These are called insulin analogs, and they have grown in popularity because scientists are able to put different properties into these analogs by adjusting their amino acid sequences.
This means they can force the body to either process them faster or slower, therefore giving the millions of people who have diabetes more choices for controlling their blood sugar levels.
Modern synthetic insulin is made with bacteria and yeast. When the DNA code for producing insulin is placed into bacteria or yeast cells, this creates insulin. It gets purified and then sold as human insulin.
Why Is Insulin So Expensive?
One of the problems encountered with insulin is its price tag. There are many reasons why diabetes medication is so expensive and more costly than it used to be.
Shockingly, 15 years ago a patient with diabetes would have to pay around $175 for a 20-milliliter vial of insulin, but today he or she would have to pay $1,478 for the same amount, as Stat News reports.
Why is this happening?
There are many reasons why insulin is still so expensive. Here’s a rundown of some of them.
Regulations Are Keeping Insulin Expensive
Insulin is known as a biologic drug, meaning that it is produced by a living organism instead of a chemical reaction. This can be prove to be more inconsistent than the chemical synthesis of non-biologic drugs.
The process of bringing that drug onto the market can cost up to $250 million, but no company will be able to pay that amount if it can’t get a patent to regain the investment, as Medical Express reports.
To make matters more complicated, insulin requires more than one patent. All the inventions it makes use of, such as test pens and other devices, which help patients better manage their diabetes, require their own patents.
Insulin Is Controlled By Three Companies
In the U.S., the production of insulin is produced by three companies who dominate over 90 percent of the world’s insulin market. These companies are Novo Nordisk, Sanofi, and Eli Lilly.
The Washington Post reports that over the last 20 years, both Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk have increased their prices on insulin 450 percent above inflation. The unfortunate reality is that most diabetes patients are vulnerable to drug company prices, as companies can set whatever price tag they want to on their drugs.
There’s No Generic Alternative
If you’ve ever had to purchase other chronic medicines, you’ll know how much purchasing generic versions of them can help to bring down their price. But there’s sadly no generic version for insulin.
Again, the reason for this is because it’s a biologic medication so it can’t be produced as easily into a generic as other drugs can.
What do high insulin levels do to the body?
High insulin, called hyperinsulinemia, is linked to diseases such as cancer and heart disease. It can also cause your body’s cells to become resistant to the effects of the hormone. When this happens, the pancreas creates more insulin, which worsens the problem.
How can you lower your body’s insulin levels?
You can do this by eating a healthy diet, avoiding all types of sugar, avoiding refined carbs, and exercising on a regular basis.
What are some early signs of diabetes?
Early diabetes symptoms include increased thirst, feeling hungry all the time, frequent urination, blurry vision, feeling tired, tingling or numbness in the hands or feet, patches of dark skin, and yeast infections.
Diabetes affects millions of people, but the use of synthetic insulin can help them to control their blood glucose levels and live long, healthy lives.
In this article, we’ve looked at the fascinating history of how insulin was discovered and engineered thanks to biotechnology. We’ve also looked at some obstacles that still need to be overcome when it comes to how insulin is being priced.