Charles H.

The Discovery of Insulin

Insulin has been called the first miracle drug (Rediscovering the First Miracle Drug, New York Times, October 5, 2010). And, indeed at the time of its discovery and first use for treating diabetes it was hailed around the world as no less than that.

The story is told in a thoroughly researched and readable book by Michael Bliss (The Discovery of Insulin; The University of Chicago Press ISBN: 9780771015601) and a more personal account by Charles Bestís son, the late Henry Best (Margaret and Charley: The Personal Story of Dr. Charles Best, the Co-Discoverer of Insulin; Dundurn ISBN: 978-1550023992). It has been re-told many times .

Frederick Banting, an unknown Canadian surgeon with a bachelor's degree in medicine, proved to have the energy and single-minded drive to succeed where others before had stumbled. He provided the impetus for the discovery of insulin and the surgical skill for the experiments that demonstrated its effectiveness in treating diabetes.

The role of Charles Best in extracting the pancreatic hormone gives us an extraordinary example of how a talented student can make a mark in history. Best had just completed his undergraduate honours degree in Physiology and Biochemistry, the elite programme at the University of Toronto, graduating among the top in his class. The timing was perfect; he was offered a position (unpaid at first) by JJR MacLeod, head of the Department of Physiology to work with Banting on his new diabetes project. Best set to work immediately (May, 1921) devising a method to extract insulin first from dog pancreas, later from beef. By the end of 1921 Banting and Best had obtained positive results of blood-sugar measurements before and after administration of extracts to dogs that were sufficient to warrant submission of a research paper announcing their success. Shortly after that the pair was joined by JB Collip, a skilled protein chemist, who refined the insulin extraction method. In January 1922 14-year-old Leonard Thompson was the first person with diabetes to receive insulin. The treatment was remarkable; Leonard, near death, rapidly regained his strength and appetite. From that point the production of ever-purer insulin increased and rapidly entered world-wide medical use.

The 1923 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Banting and MacLeod. Banting immediately shared his prize money with Charles Best as a statement of his opinion of Bestís essential contribution to the insulin story. Today the discovery of insulin is almost universally associated in popular opinion with the names Banting and Best.

Charles Bestís future research career included the role in the human body of the essential vitamin, choline, and histaminase, which controls the inflammation-inducing molecule, histamine. He established the clinical use of heparin, which is still used today as a blood anticoagulant in the treatment of thrombosis. Charles Best was made head of the physiology department in 1929 and became director of the Banting and Best Department of Medical Research in 1941, succeeding Frederick Banting who was killed in World War Two.

The Dr. Charles H. Best Foundation fulfils its charitable purposes by recognizing contributions to scientific research by students and fellows such as the young Charles Best by awarding Dr. Charles H. Best Postdoctoral Fellowships in The Donnelly Centre. Charles Best remained at the forefront of biomedical research throughout his career; the Foundation supports fellows who are at the cutting edge of todayís research.

A dramatised documentary of the 1921-22 Nobel Prize-winning discovery of insulin at the University of Toronto can be found here:

the discovery of insulin Photo courtesy : University of Toronto