History matters – a century after insulin’s discovery, we’re going backwards

I have had Type 1 diabetes for 52 years and, like so many other Canadians with this condition, learned about the heroic scientists who discovered insulin from the very first day I was diagnosed.

Over the past year, the country has been celebrating that time 100 years ago when Banting, Best, Collip and McLeod discovered insulin – with the first successful experiment on a dog in November 1921 and the first human treated in January 1922. When the group transferred the patent for insulin to the University of Toronto for $1 in 1923, Banting famously said: “Insulin does not belong to me. It belongs to the world.”

This creed guided the U of T as it developed a distribution strategy to ensure that no company would have a monopoly on the manufacture and sale of insulin. Both public and private manufacturers around the world were licensed to produce insulin on condition that they sell it at a price as close to production costs as possible.

While I celebrate the discovery of insulin, I’m dismayed by the way modern-day pharmaceutical companies have linked their opportunistic gambits in the insulin market to the achievements of insulin’s co-discoverers. Canadians deserve the real story about how Pharma drove up insulin prices, created a global oligarchy and increased the burden on those who need this life-giving medicine.

The centenary should have provided an opportunity to look at the impact on diabetics of the decision in the mid-1980s to privatize the legendary Connaught Labs, where insulin was first developed. Many Canadians may know that Connaught was one of the world’s most important vaccine producers and distributors and that its privatization has negatively affected our access to vaccines. But they are less likely to know that Canada no longer produces a single drop of insulin, neither for ourselves nor for anyone else.

Today, we are completely dependent on three companies – Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi – that control 95 per cent of the global insulin market. Two of these together have withdrawn dozens of safe, effective and affordable insulin options from the Canadian market, not because they were unsafe – they weren’t – but because they didn’t generate the profits Pharma investors wanted.

And there’s no guarantee that global producers will continue to supply Canadians with insulin. In 1985, Eli Lilly was the sole producer of insulin in Argentina when the country was facing a severe economic crisis. With inflation rates above 800 per cent, the government implemented price controls on all products, including medicines. In response, the company closed its plant, creating a sudden shortage of insulin for 73,500 men, women and children.

Eli Lilly, along with Sanofi and Novo Nordisk, has also been part of a vigorous and aggressive campaign to overturn our own system of protecting Canadians against unfair prices on patented drugs. This has included threats to withhold or delay the introduction of new medicines for Canadians. Yet stronger price controls are exactly what people who use insulin need.  

We have become more, not less vulnerable since Connaught was privatized. Health Canada can’t be relied on to protect access to insulin because – unbelievably – it claims not to have a mandate requiring manufacturers to supply Canadians. It was this stance that enabled the withdrawal of the entire range of lower-cost animal insulin developed by Connaught. These were replaced with biosynthetic human insulin (BHI) that manufacturers promoted as an innovation on the same scale as the original 1921 discovery.

Introduced in 1983 in both North America and Europe by Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk, human insulin was the world’s first product of recombinant DNA technology. But, instead of offering a needed addition to the diabetes medicine chest, many believe Pharma saw insulin as an ideal vehicle to test drive genetic cloning, particularly because it came with a very large and captive market. And, given high levels of public anxiety at the time, biotechnology needed a respectable ambassador. 

When BHI was submitted to regulators such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada for approval, manufacturers claimed that BHI was virtually interchangeable with pork insulin. Both regulators gave the new insulin products the stamp of approval in a record five months – at a time when the average approval times were 40-60 months. The FDA’s medical review officer, Henry Miller, claimed that the “quality of the submission from Lilly was unsurpassed and evidence of safety and efficacy was unequivocal and copious.”

The well-respected Cochrane Collaboration was less impressed. In 2002, the group noted that the studies – 70 per cent of which were sponsored by manufacturers – were of “poor methodological quality” and had failed to investigate essential endpoints such as mortality, morbidity and health-related quality of life. The evidence, collected in trials lasting five to six months, showed that BHI had no therapeutic or clinical advantage over animal insulins and that only 40 per cent of the studies provided information about adverse effects. And while Miller claimed the FDA approval was an “epochal event,” Cochrane concluded that the introduction of human insulin should serve as an example of “pharmaceutical and technological innovations that are not backed up by sufficient proof of their advantages and safety.”

While telling regulators that BHI was on par with the safety and effectiveness of animal insulin, manufacturers were telling the public that human insulin was identical to the insulin produced by nondiabetics – practically a cure. One Eli Lilly rep, when questioned by a reporter about the superior benefits of human insulin, answered rhetorically, “Which would you like to inject, something that’s human, or something from a pig?”

Canadians deserve the real story about how Pharma drove up insulin prices, created a global oligarchy and increased the burden on those who need this life-giving medicine.

For Pharma, BHI was a gold mine, boosting profits beyond what could have been imagined. Today, the average cost of producing insulin is about $5 per 10ml vial, but most people in Canada are paying between $35 and $80 (in the U.S., it’s up to $380). It’s even worse in the global south. It’s now estimated that half of the world’s people who need insulin can’t afford it, a death sentence for those who must do without. Children like Leonard Thompson, Banting’s first patient, are still dying for lack of insulin in low- and middle-income countries. For these children, it’s still 1921.

Pharma argues that this is the cost of innovation and that higher prices can be explained by insulin that is safer or better than it was 30 or 40 years ago when it cost less than a third what it costs now. Yet today insulin ranks second among reported drugs for serious, nonfatal adverse side effects. One of those adverse events – hypoglycemia – is among the leading causes of hospital emergency department visits by diabetics.

Hypoglycemia is the term used to describe low blood sugar, the most common side effect of insulin therapy, regardless of type or species. When a person’s blood sugar dips too low, the body releases hormones that send warning signals to the brain. Absent or weak signals are key risk factors for severe and sometimes fatal hypoglycemia.

Not long after BHI was introduced, diabetics began reporting that their early warning signs of low blood sugar had weakened or disappeared. A 1991 report from the U.K. pointed to unexpected deaths during the night among otherwise healthy young diabetics who had switched to BHI, a tragedy described as “dead-in-bed syndrome.” Insulin manufacturers amended product labels to warn that switching from animal to human insulin could result in weaker hypoglycemia signals for some. Appearing before Canada’s Standing Committee on Health in 2003, Eli Lilly acknowledged that a few patients who had had diabetes for a long time reported a condition known as “hypoglycemia unawareness” when they switched to the biosynthetic human variety.

Today, studies indicate that up to 50 per cent of people who use biosynthetic human insulin are unable to safely detect low blood sugar and that young children fail to detect more than 40 per cent of such episodes. One 2018 study found that diabetics who needed an ambulance were more than twice as likely to experience impaired awareness of hypoglycemia, a frightening reality especially for children and parents.

Hypoglycemia unawareness and other problems associated with biosynthetic human insulin were the subjects of three attempted class action lawsuits in the U.K., the U.S. and Canada between 1992 and 2004. One of these was initiated by a woman who claimed she experienced excruciating pain in response to Humulin insulin made by Eli Lilly. In an obscure 1988 report, one of the company’s scientists described a “syndrome consisting of arthralgia, arthritis, myalgia, elevation in the erythrocyte sedimentation rate and a mild normochromic or hypochromic anemia without changes in serum complement or hematuria … All cases responded to cessation of treatment with human insulin.”

How did the industry respond to these problems? Instead of ensuring diabetics had access to a broad range of insulin options, manufacturers withdrew animal insulin, the only safe alternative for an estimated 10 per cent of people requiring this therapy. They partnered with device makers, spawning an industry producing technological fixes, each with its own risks and costs – insulin pumps, glucose monitors, pens and other expensive high tech interventions, most of which are needed to mitigate the risks associated with insulin therapy.

People who need insulin deserve better than this. Health Canada, in response to demands by diabetics who use insulin, has worked to ensure the ongoing availability of animal insulin products in Canada.

The best way to achieve this is to bring insulin production, both animal and biosynthetic, back into a public setting, and to increase the range of safe and effective options while removing financial barriers to access. That was the plan in 1921 and it’s one worth celebrating and fighting for today.

The comments section is closed.

  • Harvey Kaplan says:

    The cynical attitude in this article toward pharmaceutical companies and governmental regulatory bodies is not helpful. It is misleading to cherry pick problems and not provide scientifically valid information or the context in which insulin has been, and continues to be, a highly successful life-saving therapeutic. For example, the assertions that porcine insulin is better than human insulin and that human insulin produced by recombinant DNA technology is chemically different from endogenously produced insulin do not make scientific sense . In effect, the pharmaceutical companies are being accused of colluding to keep the price of insulin high. This is a very serious allegation. Non-competitive price fixing is illegal in all democratic countries and there are very severe penalties. If there is evidence for this, then individuals or groups should attempt to bring legal action and make them pay. The fact that there is no mention of legal action against such price fixing makes it look like the rhetoric in this article is just the usual left-wing anti capitalist propaganda that all private companies are greedy and gouge consumers.
    The pharmaceutical companies have developed several improved insulins especially long-term acting insulins which reduce the number of insulin injections required. They are currently investing large amounts of money in developing even better therapeutic insulins such as once a week administration or orally administered insulin. It is in their interests to reduce the cost of production as it would allow them to make the same profit at a lower cost to diabetic patients. In our economic system companies can only exist if they can make profits and if they can’t make a profit on novel products, then they simply will not produce them. In essence, advocates like the author of this article want Government to take complete control of insulin production and pricing. Communist and other socialistic economic systems have not produced single therapeutic insulin. There is much research on improving the treatment of diabetes, but solutions advocated in this article would prevent the pharmaceutical companies from producing insulin products and that certainly would not improve the current situation.

  • Anne Smith says:

    Wonderful article. My mother developed Type 1 diabetes in 1957 at age 33 years and died at age 95 years. She was fortunate to live so long. Her only complication was vision loss. The impact of pharmaceutical industry control of Insulin is tragic.Thank you for explaining this so well. I did not realize why animal based Insulin had been replaced. Interestingly it probably explains Mom’s decreased awareness of hypoglycemia as time went by.

  • Lana says:

    Unfortunately the trend to less care and more profit continues to march forward. Canada has NO INSULIN MANUFACTURING within its borders. Therefore no power to influence the cost of this life-saving serum. Something has to be done to take back the pharmaceutical trade.

  • Janis Phipps-Clark says:

    Type1 54years
    After translating the symptoms into layman’s terms there are some extremely worrying side effects.
    But I’m relieved to know that by stopping the human insulin the symptoms will stop.
    However, how easy is it to obtain the animal insulins that I haven’t seen for many years ?
    Alongside the fact that most animals are given antibiotics from birth to promote faster growth…will this affect the insulin?

    • Colleen Fuller says:

      If you live in Canada, pork insulin is available – the brand name is Hypurin and it comes in two formulations, NPH and Regular. It’s available at any pharmacy and imported from the UK by a Toronto company called Nucro-Technics. It’s covered by provincial drug plans under special authorization (that is a battle yet to be won) and I think all employer-sponsored benefit plans cover it as well. If you live in the UK or the EU pork insulin is also accessible. Only Americans are unable to access pork insulin. I wish I knew more about the impact of antibiotics, etc., on the quality of animal insulin but I don’t. However, animal-sourced pancreatic glands are used elsewhere in medicine and I assume there are very high standards that must be met.

  • Marke Andrews says:

    Good story. As a Type 1 diabetic for more than 30 years I have been told that the BC government will only recognize certain insulins for medical coverage. The switch from Novolin-Toronto to Humalog was fine, but the switch from Lantus to Basaglar was awful; I had to take a much larger dose to get an effect, and put on 10 pounds despite my regular eating and exercise regimens. So I said no, and switched back to Lantus, reducing my insulin dosage and shedding the added weight.
    Big Pharma needs to realize that all diabetics are different, and insulin is not a one-brand-fits-all medication.

  • Don Pettit says:

    Excellent write up, appreciate the post. I’m quite familiar with animal insulin back when it was produced from “oink & moo” & then later by “oink” only. Diagnosed early 50’s as a “pup” & needless to say lived through a few downside escapades.

  • Janet Currie says:

    Thank you for this powerful and detailed history of how pharmaceutical companies have manipulated insulin production to ensure that their profits and control of the market are priorities, rather than the health of people with diabetes. Health Canada needs to push back on the narrative that manufactured insulin is safe and appropriate for everyone and ensure that a consistent and accessible supply of animal insulin is available. I was glad the writer made the connection between the marketing of expensive glucose monitoring products like Dexcom as being related to the introduction of manufactured insulin which makes it difficult for people to monitor their glucose levels. Starter kit sale in Canada for $299.00. Let’s face it – insulin only for the wealthy..it is appalling (diabetes is one of the fastest growing diseases in poor countries)

  • Kevin Mathison says:

    I have been a type one diabetic for 48 years, when I was younger and on animal insulin I was thin and could feel my lows and was able to live life to the fullest. That all changed with the introduction of synthetic human insulin. I quickly became unaware of lows and started to go unconscious before I would realize I needed food to compensate. As I am sure everyone on human insulin have experienced. This intern lead to diabetic counseling and people telling you that it is your fault for not looking after yourself properly. When the truth is just in the medication us diabetics were taking. I am sure that everyone is aware that all pharmaceutical medicines are made to create health problems so that Big pharma can then have doctors give you more medication upon more medication that only treat symptoms but not the condition. This is what gives them huge profits. I believe there is a cure for Diabetes but a cure is not profitable to Big Pharma. Any one can see all the new advances that has given hope!, only to never hear of that hope again once you heard it.

  • Brad Olliver says:

    In 1968 at almost 10 years old after having pneumonia which I was treated for my doctor looked at me skinny, urinating all the time and my energy gone. He asked me to do a urine test and came back to myself and my mother and said he was 100% sure I had type one diabetes. He gave my mother a prescription for insulin and sent her to the drugstore. She came back with the bottle and some syringes and he showed us how to take and an estimate of dosage till I could see someone at the hospital in Brampton, Ontario. For reasons I never understood my parents acknowledged but never became involved in my treatment. When I was admitted a week or so later there was no one with any idea about JT1D. I waited almost two weeks till someone from Toronto came to see me. He said this was a temporary inconvenience and in the next few years I would not need insulin. Well it has been 54 years and not a lot has happened. I take my insulin in smaller bits now to reduce low blood sugar but where is this miraculous cure and why is diabetes now becoming rampant? I suspect greedy pharma is making sure that everyone is on insulin that has diabetes. In 54 years technology has grown exponentially but not insights into diabetes. No one wants diabetes but no one wants a cure except diabetics.

  • Betty-Anne Daviss says:

    As a health care provider, I find this upsetting, both for the individuals involved who need the medication, and the larger concerns of Big Pharma heaping profits at the expense of people who need their medications–a story revisited with the profits that Pfizer and Moderna are now making from their vaccines. We all know the latter also to be true, while in Texas, a group of scientists make their own vaccine and share the recipe freely with low resource countries.So my question is, what does the Diabetic Association of Canada say about it? Is that a forum through which something might be done about this?

  • Terence H Young, former MP for Oakville says:

    What politician would dare to take on Big Pharma? How many politicians refuse to take Big Pharma money for their campaigns? That is a key issue.

  • Dale Fuller says:

    Colleen, I read the article in its entirety. Congratulations. Thank you for all the relevant information. I have one question which concerns the almost last paragraph. Here it is: Health Canada, in response to demands by diabetics who use insulin, has worked to ensure the ongoing availability of animal insulin products in Canada. Does that mean that mean that Health Canada is actually doing that? Is thinking about it or what?
    Also one thing I always wonder about. Does type 2 diabetes really exist? Dale Fuller

    • Colleen Fuller says:

      Health Canada has acknowledged that animal insulin is essential for a subset of people with diabetes. They even asked the WHO to include animal insulin on the Essential Medicines List (to no avail). They continue to work with some of us to Canadians have access to pork insulin (imported from the UK) through any pharmacy in the country. The problem is that many of those who would benefit don’t know that animal insulin is still available and even those who know it don’t dare take it for granted. We need better than that.

      For me the real question about Type 2 diabetes – who, by the way, constitute 80% of the insulin market – is why are they stigmatized and blamed constantly for their condition, and treated like nothing more than a lucrative market by Pharma?

  • John Cook says:

    a very interesting read and one that deserves more discussion

  • Janis Reed says:

    Excellent writing! Thank you for this. It is unconscionable that insulin is no longer produced in Canada. Is there some way that government can be lobbied to bring production back to Canada and in the public domain?

    • Colleen Fuller says:

      That is such a good question. I think more Canadians have to be informed about what’s happened, especially in the diabetes community.

  • Scott King says:

    Wonderful Writing!


Colleen Fuller


Colleen Fuller is a cofounder and board member of Independent Voices for Safe & Effective Drugs and a member of the Steering Committee of UBC’s Therapeutics Initiative.

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