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The insulin story: Translating discovery into practical applications

November 15, 2011

If the greatest problem in biomedical research is moving from the laboratory bench to the bedside, Canadians have a pretty good record of doing something about it.  They just walk across College Street.

At least that’s what happened 90 years ago this coming January when the research team working on pancreatic extracts in the University of Toronto’s Department of Physiology decided the time had come to test their substances on a human. They walked across College Street from their labs to the diabetes clinic at the Toronto General Hospital (TGH), began testing their extracts on human patients and, as they say, the rest is history.

MaRS is built on the site of the old TGH wing where insulin became a practical reality. How fitting, given that it is now home to Toronto’s primary monument to the discovery of insulin, Toronto’s gift to the world, inaugurated at a special ceremony a few weeks ago.

This story of discovery was repeated a few years later when formulae for baby food passed from the university kitchens to the Hospital for Sick Children, resulting in pablum. And it keeps on being repeated whenever Canadian researchers find ways to translate discoveries into practical applications.

We urgently need to keep on repeating the insulin story. We need institutions that stand at the crossroads where theory meets practicality. Visionary Canadian biomedical researchers such as John Evans and Cal Stiller understood this as they promoted the development of MaRS, a great discovery district where Toronto’s research labs and clinics came together.

It’s nice to see that construction has resumed on the new phase of MaRS, which is on its way to coming full circle as the special site where researchers figure out how to improve the human condition.

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  • Ben

    Wow, leave it to Toronto to be full of itself… Thanks for mentioning that Banting’s idea for insulin came in London, On. The fact that the Canadian Diabetes Association has the Frederick Banting Museum in London, where he practiced medicine and lived. The fact that the Queen of England lit the flame of hope in Frederick Banting Square, in London, On. IT WAS BANTING’S GIFT TO THE WORLD, not Toronto’s. Seriously this is one of the saddest things I have read. Banting gave the gift of life to many people who suffer from Diabetes. I really hope you have the decency to remove Toronto’s Gift to the World…

  • Ben

    Wow, you even deleted my comment…

  • http://twitter.com/r_benjamin_kent R Benjamin Kent

    This was Banting’s gift to the world, not Toronto’s. Do you always need to put your city first? Seriously… Banting also came up with the idea for insulin in London, Ontario where he lived and practiced medicine. Maybe you should give credit to the PERSON who saved lives, not the place where he did it.

  • http://twitter.com/r_benjamin_kent R Benjamin Kent

    This was Banting’s gift to the world, not Toronto’s. Do you always need to put your city first? Seriously… Banting also came up with the idea for insulin in London, Ontario where he lived and practiced medicine. Maybe you should give credit to the PERSON who saved lives, not the place where he did it.

  • http://twitter.com/r_benjamin_kent R Benjamin Kent

    This was Banting’s gift to the world, not Toronto’s. Do you always need to put your city first? Seriously… Banting also came up with the idea for insulin in London, Ontario where he lived and practiced medicine. Maybe you should give credit to the PERSON who saved lives, not the place where he did it.

    • http://dev.hypenotic.com/wordpress MaRS

      Fair enough, although places bring ideas and resources together. In fairness, Banting, Best, Collip and McLeod worked in collaboration on this gift.

  • http://twitter.com/r_benjamin_kent R Benjamin Kent

    This was Banting’s gift to the world, not Toronto’s. Do you always need to put your city first? Seriously… Banting also came up with the idea for insulin in London, Ontario where he lived and practiced medicine. Maybe you should give credit to the PERSON who saved lives, not the place where he did it.

    • http://dev.hypenotic.com/wordpress MaRS

      Fair enough, although places bring ideas and resources together. In fairness, Banting, Best, Collip and McLeod worked in collaboration on this gift.

Michael Bliss

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Michael Bliss is University Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto and the author of numerous books on the history of medicine and the history of Canada.

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