A Short History

Diabetes was a death sentence for thousands of years until the discovery and isolation of insulin in 1921 provided the first groundbreaking step toward a cure. Before Sir Frederick Banting and Charles Best isolated the hormone, and colleagues J. J. R. Macleod and J. B. Collip helped purify and produce it for human use, the only treatment for diabetes was a near-starvation diet that resulted in slow wasting and eventual death.

Once insulin provided a way to treat the symptoms of diabetes, the challenge in the years that have followed has been to find a way to restore the insulin-producing capacity of the pancreas.

Genetic Discoveries

Deciphering the genetic code behind the regulation of insulin production is one of the keys to finding the cure for diabetes. In 2002, researchers at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston reported that they had isolated and cloned the third and what is believed to be final gene behind insulin production.

These three genes — PDX-1, Neuro-D1, and RIPE3b1 factor — work together to trigger insulin production in the beta cells of the pancreas. When either of these two genes is missing, the pancreas and/or beta cells fail to develop normally, resulting in type 1 diabetes.

Researchers are now using this knowledge to try to find a way to coax stem cells, the building blocks of the human body, to develop into insulin-producing beta cells and possibly lead to a cure for diabetes. Stem cell research is covered in greater detail later.


Sir Frederick Banting began treating one of his first and most famous patients in 1922. Elizabeth Hughes, the daughter of New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes, weighed only 45 pounds when she began twice-daily injections of insulin. She recovered rapidly, becoming a national medical miracle and living until age 73.

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