Genetically Engineering Insulin: What You Need to Know

Genetically Engineering Insulin: What You Need to Know

Diabetes can be a debilitating and potentially fatal disease. It is caused by an inability to produce or process insulin, a protein hormone vital in breaking down blood sugars.

In this article we take a closer look at this illness. We also examine how the development of synthetic insulin has improved treatment for individuals with diabetes all over the world.

How Many People Are Affected by Diabetes?

Researchers estimate that 100 million people in the United States are prediabetic or have diabetes. Figures gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that approximately 9.4 percent of the US population have this serious, and sometimes life-threatening, condition.

The disease has been the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States since 2015. Experts estimate that one in four diabetics are unaware that they have the condition.

Great progress has been achieved in diabetes management through a healthy diet, physical activity, and appropriate use of insulin and other medications. People with diabetes have an increased risk of dangerous complications like heart disease; kidney failure; stroke; amputation of the toes, feet, and legs; vision loss; and, ultimately, premature death.

What Is Diabetes?

Diabetes occurs when there is too much glucose in the blood. Glucose gives us energy, which our bodies need to function properly. As we break down carbohydrates we eat or drink, glucose enters the bloodstream. Glucose intake must be offset by a hormone called insulin. In a healthy human body, the pancreas generates insulin in ample amounts. Insulin helps glucose in our bloodstream enter cells to fuel our bodies.

In people with diabetes, their pancreas does not work properly. There are two main types: Type 1 and Type 2. Individuals with Type 1 diabetes cannot generate insulin at all. People with Type 2 diabetes generate insufficient amounts. As a result, cells cannot absorb glucose, which instead builds up in the blood. Excess glucose in the bloodstream can cause a variety of problems.

People with both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes can experience the following symptoms: excessive thirst; frequent urination, particularly at night; fatigue; thrush; unexplained weight loss; blurred vision; and delayed healing to wounds and cuts. However, with the right care, people with diabetes can live long, virtually normal lives.

The Development of Animal Insulin

Animal insulin was first trialed on humans in 1922. Leonard Thompson, a 14-year-old with Type 1 diabetes, received insulin developed from cows. This form of insulin had been developed by Dr Frederick Banting, medical student Charles Best, and purified by biochemist James Collip.

In 1922, the prognosis for a person diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes was measured in months, rather than years. Leonard Thompson went on to live another 13 years before dying of pneumonia. Insulin derived from cows and pigs was the only treatment for diabetes up until the 1980s. Scientists extract animal insulin from the animal’s pancreas.

The Development of Synthetic Insulin

Genetically-engineered synthetic insulin was made available to the public in 1982. By the mid-1980s, an estimated 84 percent of individuals with diabetes in the United Kingdom had switched from animal insulin to this synthetic substitute.

Funded by Genentech Inc., genetically-engineered insulin was first produced in 1978, at the City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, California. Experts hailed the breakthrough as the biggest advancement in the treatment of diabetes since the development of animal insulin.

Scientists synthesize genetically-engineered insulin using DNA technology. Recombinant DNA involves combining genes from different organisms in order to create a hybrid molecule.

Scientists at the City of Hope inserted human insulin-coding genes into E. coli bacteria. E. coli is a laboratory strain similar in type to bacteria found in the human gut. Once inside the E. coli bacteria, the insulin-coding genes started to generate insulin.

Advantages of Synthetic Insulin

In 1978, approximately 1.5 million Americans with diabetes needed regular insulin injections. At that time, every pound of insulin produced took 8,000 pounds of porcine or bovine pancreas glands to generate.


The development of synthetic insulin solved supply shortages. The advancement also reduced adverse reactions. The chemical composition of synthetic insulin is identical to human insulin. This led to a drastic reduction in allergic reactions.

Three and a half decades ago, synthetic insulin became the first genetically-modified organism to receive FDA approval for use on humans. Advances in biochemistry and genetic engineering facilitated this major advancement in the treatment of one of the world’s most common diseases.

The Ongoing Need for Genetically-Engineered Insulin

Recent American Diabetes Association research suggests that one in four Americans has diabetes. Experts warn that worldwide diabetes rates are reaching alarming proportions. The invention of genetically-engineered insulin is a major breakthrough.

It reduces the burden on healthcare providers and improves individual outcomes. Nevertheless, the surge in diabetes, predicted to peak at 472 million cases worldwide by 2030, remains of unprecedented concern to healthcare providers and government bodies all over the world.  

Dr. Harry Stylli is a healthcare investor and entrepreneur. In his role as chair at OncoCellMDx, Dr. Harry Stylli strives to help physicians not only identify signatures of disease, but also gather crucial information about a cancer’s aggressiveness and staging. Dr. Harry Stylli has provided executive leadership to numerous innovative companies. Dr. Harry Stylli also serves as founder and executive chairman of Progenity, a genetic testing company catering to women and expectant parents as well as to individuals with potential familial cancer risks. You can connect with Dr. Harry Stylli at LinkedIn