Pitt Synthesizes Insulin First
In 1964, a Pitt team led by professor P.G. Katsoyannis synthesized a protein for the first time. The protein was insulin, and Pitt’s biochemical feat has proved a lifesaver for millions of diabetics.
Insulin is produced by the pancreas to help the body convert sugar to energy. A person whose pancreas does not produce enough insulin, or whose cells can’t use it correctly, suffers from diabetes.
Before Katsoyannis and his colleagues synthesized insulin—one of nature’s most complex compounds—only insulin obtained from the pancreases of animals had been available to treat diabetics. With the incidence of diabetes increasing dramatically by the middle of the 20th century, doctors worried that the supply of animal-sourced insulin could not keep up with demand. Today, nearly 285 million people worldwide have some form of diabetes.
In 1977, the first genetically engineered, synthetic “human” insulin was produced in a laboratory by Pitt alumnus Herbert Boyer (ENG ’63), using genetically modified E coli bacteria. Partnering with Boyer’s company Genentech (the world’s first biotech company), Eli Lilly began selling the first commercially available biosynthetic human insulin in 1982.