Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The Tales of Hans Christian Hagedorn


The history of diabetes and insulin throws up some rather remarkable and unlikely things. When first discovered and administered in the early 1920’s, insulin was seen as a new miracle cure for those condemned to death from diabetes. Not a cure, of course, but a radical new treatment that saw comatose patients rising from their beds and able once more to live their lives with some semblance of normality.

One of the problems with the insulin in those early days, however, was that it worked too quickly in the body to match the digestion rate, resulting in post prandial hyperglycaemia more often, but also sometimes hypoglycaemia by reducing blood glucose levels before food could begin digesting. What was needed was a way to slow the action of the insulin. In 1936 a solution was discovered which, at first glance to the non-scientifically schooled, might appear bizarre to say the least. The idea was to mix the insulin with fish sperm or, more precisely, the protamine obtained from fish sperm – initially taken from river trout. This remarkable breakthrough was discovered by Hans Christian Hagedorn of the Danish Nordisk company and became a fundamental treatment for diabetes in the form of NPH (Neutral Protamine Hagedorn) insulin for many decades to follow. Now, fish sperm is no longer used, but a synthetic protamine is added to the genetically engineered insulins…

Once there was a village on a cliff beside the sea
Where there lived a little boy and girl, as cute as cute can be!
And their parents – how they loved them! It was plain for all to see,
As they watched them play and squeal and sing around the cherry tree!

But one dark day the demon came to strike them in the night,
The children shook, their eyes were wild, it was an awful sight!
The parents called the doctor in to do what e’er he might,
And village elders rallied round to aid the parents plight!

There lived a wise man in a cave that bordered on the shore,
So word was sent to seek him out and learn the ancient lore,
For would a balm of potent herbs the children’s health restore?
The parents feared that they would see their children play no more…

The wise man came and saw at once their glucose had gone low…
He rubbed molasses in their cheeks, and as he turned to go
Declared it was their insulin that struck the children so –
It worked too fast! There must be found some way to make it slow!

‘You must go out and seek a trout, that pretty river fish,
And squeeze it dry of semen and collect it in a dish,
Then mix it with the insulin, and you shall have your wish
For it will work with far less haste, and naught shall come amiss!’

A trout was caught, its gonads squeezed as they hung it from the rafter,
Then insulin was all mixed in – a daily task thereafter,
And soon the village rang again with peals of children’s laughter!
Thus ends the tale, as good tales do, in happy ever after!

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