Insulin – what it’s all about

This blog is one of the ways I am highlighting my fundraising efforts for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). The charity funds research into Type 1 diabetes – research to find out the causes, research to develop better treatments, research for a cure. Research is expensive and takes time. The more money the charity raises the more money is available to fund research and the quicker a cure can be found.

In this post I want to talk a little about insulin. Insulin – or to be precise the lack of it – is fundamental to Type 1 diabetes. So, what is insulin and what does it do? What happens to insulin production in Type 1 diabetes? I am not a chemist, so it’s going to be a simple explanation! Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas. In the pancreas there are clusters of cells called the islets of Langerhans, discovered in 1869 by German pathological anatomist Paul Langerhans. In the islets there are endocrine (hormone) cells called beta cells (β-cells) which respond to elevated levels of glucose in the blood by producing insulin. In a healthy pancreas there are about 1 million islets of Langerhans. The name insulin comes from the Latin word insula meaning island – referring to the islets of Langerhans.

Islet of Langerhans

Hormones are like messengers, telling different parts of the body what to do in certain situations. You eat a meal or a snack. The food you have eaten is broken down in the digestive system into proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are converted to glucose. The glucose molecules flow around the body in the blood stream to provide energy for all the body’s needs – thinking, sitting, walking, talking – everything . But glucose in the blood is useless, and if it is there too long it can actually cause harm. It has to get into the tissues to fuel the cells that keep us going. Insulin is like a key that unlocks the cells so that glucose can be taken up and used.  A healthy pancreas produces insulin all the time, and after eating something it will produce more into the blood stream in response. It reacts to the levels of glucose constantly, adjusting the amount of insulin so that there isn’t too little – leaving glucose in the blood unable to be used, or too much which can lead to glucose being used too quickly and leaving cells ‘hungry’.

How the insulin ‘unlocks’ the cell
No insulin = no glucose uptake

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. The pancreas stops making insulin when the body’s immune system turns on itself and destroys the beta cells in the islets of Langerhans. It leaves the person with no way of producing insulin, and therefore no way of getting the glucose out of the blood and into the body’s cells. It is not clear what triggers this autoimmune response. What is clear is that the incidence of Type 1 diabetes is rising by 4% a year in the UK, with a rise of about 5% in children under 5 in the last 20 years. There are 400,000 people living with Type 1 diabetes in the UK (which has one of the highest rates in the world). Twenty nine thousand children in the UK live with Type 1 diabetes.

Insulin was discovered almost 100 years ago in 1921, by Banting, Best and Macleod in Toronto. Animal (pig and cow) insulin was first used in humans in 1922. Research continued into the structure of insulin, until in 1963 it became the first human protein to be chemically synthesised. However it wasn’t until 1978 that synthetic insulin was manufactured on a large scale – the first human protein to be made through biotechnology. In 1982 it was re-named human insulin to distinguish it from animal derived insulin.

Over one hundred years of research – and so it continues. The research will never be done until there is a cure. Your kind donations mean that JDRF can fund and support research projects that make real differences now to the lives of people with Type 1 diabetes and their families. Thank you for your support!

Websites used in the writing of this article:

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