Monday’s Google doodle promoted the birthday of Sir Frederick Banting, a figure without whom our beloved Miles the gluttonous, diabetic dog would likely not be preparing to celebrate his 12th birthday.
Banting shared the 1923 Nobel Prize for Medicine for the “discovery” of insulin with John Macleod, a biochemist and professor whose role in the isolation of the hormone that would become known as insulin Banting downplayed in favor of his laboratory assistant, Charles H. Best. Best (then a medical student) certainly deserves credit, but so does man’s best friend.
Dogs have long played the parts of lab rats, and their roles in diabetes research predates the groundbreaking work of Banting and Best, and, if you’re feeling inclusive, Macleod. In 1889, physiologist Oskar Minkowski and physician Joseph von Mering demonstrated that dogs developed diabetes if their pancreases were removed.
Banting and Best began their research on a similar basis. The pancreas-less dogs’ blood-glucose levels skyrocketed, and they exhibited heightened thirst, increased urination and other now-familiar symptoms as diabetes set in. Then Banting and his team altered their approach with results that would save the lives of hundreds of millions of people—and their pets—around the world.
Banting’s idea was to isolate and preserve the pancreatic cell clusters known as the islets of Langerhans, which were believed to be the source of the substance that metabolized glucose, and thus held the key to regulating diabetes. Instead of removing or destroying the pancreas, as had been done in previous studies, Banting and co. ligated the dogs’ pancreatic ducts, halting the flow of nutrients to the pancreas and inducing diabetes. This conserved a significant portion of the pancreas for later study and left the islets of Langerhans intact.
The pancreases were eventually removed, and the organs’ components extracted, filtered and examined. In the process, Banting and Best isolated the hormone that Macleod would dub “insulin.” After insulin—then known with less pizzazz as “isletin”—was refined and processed, the solution was injected into diabetic dogs. The dogs’ blood-glucose levels dropped. By providing the dogs a few insulin injections each day, Banting and his assistants observed that the dogs remained otherwise healthy and free of symptoms.
Soon after their canine success, the scientists administered the extract to a 14-year-old boy, Leonard Thompson, suffering from diabetes. Thompson remained ill. J.B. Collip, a biochemist who worked in Macleod’s lab and with whom Macleod shared his Nobel Prize money, purified the extract, and researchers tried again; Thompson lived for another 15 years with routine insulin injections, eventually succumbing to pneumonia.
“Insulin is not a cure for diabetes,” Banting observed in a lecture two years after receiving the Nobel Prize, the earnings from which he shared with Best, “it is a treatment.” In the same address, Banting succinctly described insulin’s role in managing diabetes: “It enables the diabetic to burn sufficient carbohydrates, so that proteins and fats may be added to the diet in sufficient quantities to provide energy for the economic burdens of life.”
Cheers to Dr. Banting and to the research dogs who unwittingly gave their lives so that Miles and many others can cope with the “economic burdens of life.” Dogs, after all, are economic burdens that help us cope with life.