Diabetes is a disease of our times. More than 400 million people are currently living with diabetes – about 5 per cent of the global population. These patients can be divided into two groups, those that require insulin and those that don’t.
The economic cost of coping with this condition is immense. Europe alone spends around €90bn a year just to keep its diabetic population alive. Most, if not all, insulin-dependent diabetic patients would die very quickly if they couldn’t get access to their insulin and since the hormone was first mass-produced for human use, there has been little if any progress in the way that diabetic patients are treated. In the first few decades after its introduction, millions of lives were saved but nobody was seriously talking about a cure. Virtually all diabetic doctors focus on palliation.
When we look at different animals around the world it turns out that pretty much all of them require insulin and what’s striking about the structure of the insulin molecule is its consistency. It has been preserved throughout evolution, so much so that fish insulin will produce a discernible response if we inject it into humans. It doesn’t work particularly well – and I wouldn’t want to be treated by it myself – but man and fish haven’t shared a common ancestor for more than a hundred million years so the fact that it works at all is more than astonishing.
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