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February 1, 2006


Question from Northfield, Minnesota, USA:

My best friend was recently diagnosed with diabetes. She is being treated with artificial insulin. How is it made?


Artificial is really not the correct word.

Insulin is made in the pancreas of animals, including humans. Insulin in different species of animals is slightly different molecularly. In the past, we went to the butcher and obtained pancreas tissue from pigs and cows. The insulin was extracted and given to people. It worked to keep diabetes controlled, but beef and pork are not exactly like human insulin.

Now, scientists are able to make human insulin in a test tube. They actually use bacteria or yeast to make the insulin. They have placed the gene that makes insulin into the bacteria and yeast. Pure human insulin is the product. I wouldn’t call it artificial. It looks and acts just like the insulin people make. We now can give insulin that is human.

Because we give insulin as shots, it doesn’t work just like it would if our pancreas gave us the insulin. The time for the insulin to work isn’t just right. Sometimes it isn’t there when we need it and we go high; other times it works when we don’t need it and we go low.

Scientists have changed the insulin molecule just a little bit to make it work at the times we need it to work and called it “insulin analogues.” I suppose you could call this “artificial” insulin. These insulins, lispro, aspart, glargine, detemir and glulisine all are used today to make insulin work when we want it to work and are a major advance in medical science, I might add.

The recently approved inhaled insulin is actually human insulin.

I am not all that old, and when I first started caring for children with diabetes, the insulin was very impure. Maybe 10% of the “stuff” in the vial was impurities. Today, we have 100% pure insulin products. Not a bad place to be I’d say.