What is Canada’s most significant scientific breakthrough?

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With Canada Day around the corner we’ve been debating this question.

It’s a tough one to answer. During the 150 years since Confederation, we’ve made some remarkable discoveries. The invention of the pacemaker in the 1950s, pioneered by John Hopps in collaboration with Wilfred Bigelow and John Callaghan stands out. The design and development of Pablum by Frederick Tisdall, Theodore G.H. Drake and Alan Brown in 1930 has saved the lives of countless malnourished children. More recently, a Canadian group discovered a critical fossil 380 million years old that links the evolution of aquatic and terrestrial animals.

But, with my feet to the fire, my answer would be that the discovery and purification of the hormone insulin is the most significant breakthrough. There is no doubt that this discovery has saved the lives of millions of people worldwide.

The story begins during the summer of 1921. Fredrick Banting, a young surgeon from Alliston Ontario, was provided a small lab at the University of Toronto and a research assistant named Charles Best to pursue an idea. Banting was aiming to treat the high blood glucose levels caused by diabetes using pancreatic extracts. The study of the pancreas was in its infancy and Banting’s ideas were met with typical scientific scrutiny, but he persisted nonetheless.

Under the harsh guidance of John Macleod, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto, Banting and Best identified, and then with the help of James Collip, purified, what we now know as the hormone insulin.

Insulin has a multitude of functions. One of the most important functions surrounds the maintenance of a person’s blood glucose levels. When carbohydrates (pasta, bread, etc.) are consumed, they are broken down into their most basic component, glucose. Glucose is sensed by the pancreas and insulin is subsequently released. Insulin enters the blood and acts on the body’s tissues to prevent toxic levels of glucose in the bloodstream.

Diabetes is characterized by high levels of glucose in the blood and urine. The full name for this disease is Diabetes Mellitus. The ancient Greek translation of diabetes is “to pass through.” The term mellitus is Latin for honey, or “sweetened with honey.” As early as 1500 BCE, ancient physicians diagnosed diabetes by utilizing their sense of taste, and observing that ants were highly attracted to the urine of patients suffering from this disease. Luckily, updated methods preclude current diabetes researchers from using their taste buds or employing insects to diagnose this affliction.

In diabetes, high blood glucose levels occur (for the most part) because either a) the pancreas is not producing insulin, called type I diabetes, or b) peripheral tissues (such as the muscle) are resistant to the effect of insulin, called type II diabetes. In both cases, providing insulin can lower the amount of glucose in the blood and reduce the risk of adverse events such as heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure.

Before insulin was identified and purified, a child born with diabetes would survive on average between 1 month and 2 years. The first patients treated with insulin in 1922 went on to experience long healthy lives, and have children of their own. This discovery was about as close as you can get to a miracle cure. In 1923, the Nobel Committee awarded Banting and Macleod the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Banting then shared is award with Best, and Macleod shared his award with Collip.

With Canada’s birthday upon us, the importance of insulin is even more apparent.

A quintessential Canadian singer/songwriter, whose songs will no doubt be hitting the airwaves on repeat this Canada Day long weekend, was diagnosed with type I diabetes as a child.

Songs such as Harvest Moon, Down by the River and Old Man would never have been written without insulin. Without insulin, Neil Young wouldn’t have been around to make his music. And what would the Canada Day long weekend be without a steady stream of Neil Young songs?

By Brennan Smith, PhD

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