One hundred years ago this month, scientists at the University of Toronto and its partner hospitals carried out the first studies that demonstrated the ability of insulin to lower blood sugar levels in animals and prevent their death from diabetes.
Three months later, insulin was successfully administered to a person with type 1 diabetes at Toronto General Hospital. His life would become the first of millions around the world to be saved by insulin – one of the landmark medical discoveries of the 20th century.
On Friday, the historical significance of the discovery was marked by the unveiling of a commemorative bronze plaque at a ceremony hosted by Parks Canada and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) at the Myhal Centre for Engineering Innovation & Entrepreneurship on U of T’s St. George campus.
The event was attended by government dignitaries including Sonia Sidhu, member of parliament for Brampton South. The final location of the plaque, which is inscribed by bilingual text, will be determined at a later date.
“The story of insulin is a brilliant example of the power of collaboration – in this case, how a university, its hospital partners and a pharmaceutical company could work together and change the world,” said Christine Allen, U of T’s associate vice-president and vice-provost, strategic initiatives.
“On this illustrious foundation, U of T and its hospital and industry partners built a culture of discovery, innovation and collaboration that has transformed health care and continues to have a ripple effect worldwide.
From left: Patricia Brubaker, Richard Alway, Sonia Sidhu, Christine Allen, Christine Loth-Brown and Lynn Wilson (photo by Johnny Guatto)
The ceremony marked the culmination of Insulin 100, a year-long campaign to mark the centenary of insulin’s discovery and celebrate a legacy of health innovation that continues to be advanced by U of T and its partner hospitals, research institutes and industry partners.
“The Parks Canada plaque not only serves as a fitting reminder of the critical research discoveries made here at U of T – it will also inspire future trainees and researchers whose work will be pivotal in the health research discoveries made over the next hundred years,” Allen said.
Patricia Brubaker, a professor in the departments of physiology and medicine at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and member of the faculty’s Banting & Best Diabetes Centre, described the key areas of diabetes research being investigated by U of T faculty and students today.
“Our interests cover the spectrum of diabetes research, including not only type 1 diabetes, but also type 2 diabetes, which is now reaching epidemic levels, affecting one in six Canadians, as well as gestational diabetes or diabetes during pregnancy,” said Brubaker, who has been conducting diabetes research for four decades.
“We are studying the causes of diabetes through research into obesity, a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes; we are interrogating new approaches to the treatment of diabetes, including stem cell replacement therapy and new pharmacologic treatments; and our researchers are exploring the fundamental mechanisms that underlie the normal regulation of glucose and fat metabolism and how this is disrupted in diabetes, leading to long-term complications such as kidney and cardiovascular disease.”
Brubaker also reflected on the impact of insulin and diabetes research on her own life. As a person living with type 1 diabetes, she noted she is “one of legions who would not be alive today without the discovery of insulin.”
In addition to saving countless lives, the discovery of insulin helped establish U of T, its partner hospitals and Toronto more generally as a vanguard of diabetes research and treatment.
In April, some of the latest developments in the field were discussed at the Insulin100 conference, a two-day virtual symposium that drew over 6,000 attendees from around the world.
Also in April, U of T’s Banting & Best Diabetes Centre and Diabetes Action Canada hosted “100 Years of Insulin – Celebrating its Impact on our Lives,” a public celebration and forum featuring an array of topics of interest to people living with diabetes.
It was at this public celebration that Canada Post unveiled a special stamp to commemorate the discovery of insulin. The stamp, which depicts a vial of insulin resting on an excerpt from Banting’s unpublished memoirs, was unveiled from the Banting House National Historic Site of Canada in London, Ont. – in the very room where Banting first got the idea that eventually led to the discovery of insulin. Brubaker and Scott Heximer, chair of the department of physiology at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and a principal investigator at the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research, worked with Canada Post and Banting House to ensure the stamp’s historical accuracy and help source archival material.
The stamp would be the first of several commemorations to mark the place of insulin in the cultural tapestry of Canada’s heritage.
In May, Historica Canada released a Heritage Minutes segment paying tribute to the discovery. The segment depicts the plight of 13-year-old diabetes patient Leonard Thompson, and the efforts of Banting and Best to formulate and refine the insulin treatment that ultimately saves Thompson’s life. Again, experts from U of T – including science and medicine librarian Alexandra Carter, archivist Natalya Rattan and medical historian Christopher Rutty – were consulted on the project to ensure historical accuracy.
In July, the Royal Canadian Mint issued its own commemoration in the form of a two-dollar coin depicting a monomer (a building block of the insulin molecule), insulin cells, blood cells, glucose and the scientific instruments used in early formulations of insulin.
The importance of insulin was recognized almost immediately after its initial discovery. In 1923, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Frederick Banting and James McLeod, who isolated insulin in U of T’s department of physiology. The prize was shared with physiology and biochemistry student Charles Best and biochemist James Collip.
U of T researchers continue to be recognized for their stellar work in advancing diabetes research.
Brubaker was honoured last year with a Lifetime Achievement Award from Diabetes Canada, a recognition of her longstanding contribution to diabetes research and the Canadian diabetes community. And, earlier this year, Daniel Drucker, professor of medicine in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and a senior investigator at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Sinai Health, was awarded a Canada Gairdner International Award for research on glucagon-like peptides that has helped revolutionize treatments for type 2 diabetes – an honour he shared with collaborators at Harvard University and the University of Copenhagen.