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The green vendetta against artificial insulin

Insulin syringes. Photo Heather Aitken (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Forty years ago a young San Francisco company called Genentech made a scientific breakthrough: its researchers created a synthetic form of insulin, the hormone that controls levels of sugar in the blood. 

It’s hard to believe now, but a century ago type 1 diabetes was a killer. People who develop it cannot produce insulin. They were put on starvation diets and would die within months. Then in the early 1920s scientists found a way to purify insulin from cows and started giving it to children with diabetes. 

Their first patient lived for 13 years before dying of pneumonia. Their second lived to the age of 60 before succumbing to a heart attack. Now early deaths from diabetes are rare. And 10 per cent of the British population lives with diabetes.

But insulin from animals was always problematic, causing a string of allergic reactions, and its supply depended on a complex process and a plentiful supply of cows and, later, pigs. And, of course, many people had religious problems with the origin of the insulin.


Synthetic insulin was a boon: easy to produce, it caused fewer allergic reactions and did not depend on a supply of animals. The problem for green extremists was that it was produced by genetic engineering.

And green extremism has long had a natural home in Germany. So when in 1984 the German company Hoechst announced plans to start producing synthetic insulin, the green lobby swung into action. So effective was their campaign that it took 18 years for production to begin. No one can calculate what the detrimental effect was on Germans with diabetes, but the setback to the German biotech industry was severe. 

Undeterred, green ultras have continued attacking all aspects of genetic technology. They seize on any allergic reaction to synthetic human insulin – and with millions of people using it, there are bound to be a few – but ignore the numbers allergic to animal-derived insulin.

Now the European Court, in a clearly political decision, unwilling to face down the zealots, has intervened to enforce the green agenda against science, common sense and progress. 

Better off out, indeed!

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