The insulin story: Translating discovery into practical applications

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.