Made in Brazil: Insulin

Made in Brazil: Insulin



In Brazil, diabetes affects more than 7 million people. It is estimated that more than 80,000 deaths per year (10 every hour) are due to the disease.1

There are two types of diabetes: type I and type II. For both types, the basis of the disease is the same: the body’s means of converting glucose into energy is broken.

For our cells to convert glucose into energy, we need the hormone insulin. This is normally produced by the pancreas. In type I diabetes, the pancreas no longer makes insulin. In type II, the body stops responding to insulin altogether, even if it is still being produced by the pancreas. Type II diabetes is mostly associated with obesity and typically develops later in life, which is why it is also known as late-onset diabetes.

One of the most widely-used treatments for both types of diabetes is injections of insulin – to replace the missing insulin in type I diabetics, and to boost the ineffective insulin in type II diabetics. But how is it made… and why in Brazil?

Up until the year 1920, a diagnosis of diabetes was a death sentence. There was simply no substance capable of replicating the biological effects of insulin in the human body.

In 1921, researchers from the University of Toronto, among them Frederick Banting and Charles Best, were able to isolate the insulin molecule from the pancreas of a dog. Thus began the first large-scale production process of animal insulin.

Cattle and swine pancreas tissue was frozen crushed, and the insulin extracted, purified and concentrated.

Banting and Best’s work earned them the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology, but their solution was not perfect. Animal insulin had adverse effects in many patients, including allergies that were sometimes fatal.

In the early 1980s, insulin production took a leap. Scientists discovered and subsequently harnessed the malleability of bacterial DNA. They manipulated it to produce human, side-effect-free insulin using the nascent science of recombinant DNA.getty_673465141337382594

Today’s insulin manufacturing process is a finely-tuned, streamlined process from start to finish.

Massive cultures of bacteria genetically engineered to produce insulin are developed in fermentation tanks, called bio-reactors. These are tightly-controlled environments that provide optimum conditions for maximum insulin production.

The bioreactors are connected to a filtering system that clears residues and waste products, leaving an insulin-rich broth ready to be purified. Purification is done by chromatography, where a chromatograph operates in conjunction with a purification column, a stainless steel cylinder containing gel resin and other substances that will separate out the purified insulin, ready to be bottled.

The development of this biotechnology in Brazil in recent years has been made possible by public-private partnerships, assuring the production of insulin (and other biomolecules) and giving the Brazilian public access to state-of-the-art drugs at a lower cost.

There is no fully nationalized plant for insulin production in Brazil, but the government and healthcare companies are working to make this a reality in the future.


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