Most people recognize the two biggest names in diabetes research: Drs. Frederick Banting and Charles Best, who discovered insulin back in 1921 in Ontario, Canada.
But there are so many more scientists who’ve made a mark in changing the way this condition is managed for countless people around the world. And many of them happen to hail from Canada as well.
Their compelling stories and contributions to developing new treatments and seeking a cure are chronicled in a new book, “Beyond Banting: Decoding Canada’s Diabetes Research Superstars.”
Released in early 2021 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of insulin’s discovery, the book highlights more than a dozen other Canadian scientists whose work has impacted people with diabetes (PWDs) for the better.
“There is so much happening in this community that everyone can take pride in. I wanted to tell these stories in a way that moves us outside the academic bubble, and could really help everyone understand these stories,” author Krista Lamb told DiabetesMine. She is a Toronto-based journalist who’s spent her career writing about health and research topics, and has worked for the nonprofit org Diabetes Canada in various communications roles.
Lamb doesn’t live with diabetes herself, but has family and close friends who do.
Early in her career, she worked with country music star George Canyon, who lives with type 1 diabetes (T1D), and later began to explore the world of diabetes research.
She discovered a plethora of fascinating diabetes research projects past and present, and decided to compile her knowledge into a book to share it all with others from a nonacademic perspective.
“I really became immersed in the research, and that became a big interest for me,” she said. “Just getting to talk with these people, and see this work, was so inspiring to me. Having that kind of combination of having so many people I love live with this condition, and me having this incredible window into the research done to help improve their lives with treatments or a cure… that truly spoke to me.”
At just under 200 pages, the paperback spans 12 chapters that delve into big diabetes science topics, including: islet and beta cell research, insulin development, pancreas neurons, transplantation, technology, exercise, women and family aspects of diabetes, and the mental health side of life with diabetes.
“When I speak to people about diabetes research, they are familiar with Banting and Best, but they often have no idea of the significant contribution [other] researchers have made since Banting’s time… If they only ever see Banting and Best, or the principal investigator on a project, they may not realize there are all these other roles in research that matter,” Lamb said.
While she hesitates to pinpoint any individual scientists who captured her heart more than others, Lamb says there are certainly pieces of each person’s story that resonate and make her want others in the Diabetes Community to hear about them.
She notes that several scientists she included happen to live with T1D themselves, an important aspect because it captures the empowered patient community mantra “nothing about us without us.”
Examples of highlighted researchers, including some who live with diabetes themselves:
- Dr. Beth Mitchell, who serves in the Canadian Study of Longevity in Type 1 Diabetes — a role aimed at figuring out why some people with T1D develop complications and sometimes have more severe experiences compared to other PWDs. It’s personal for Mitchell, who was diagnosed with T1D at 8 years old in the 1960s.
- Mathematician Leif Erik Lovblom, a PhD student in the well-known Perkins Lab studying diabetes complications who lives with T1D himself. Lamb says he worried about being featured in her book because his work as a “numbers guy” wasn’t as important or interesting as the clinician-scientists involved. But the author disagreed, and included a chapter featuring him and his mentor, the legendary Dr. Bruce Perkins, who also lives with T1D. Lovblom’s PhD thesis looks at how statistical techniques can be used to help better understand the natural history of diabetes complications.
- Closed loop technology researcher Dr. Ahmad Haider and his colleagues, who worked at a children’s diabetes camp to get a perspective on life with T1D. They went tent-to-tent to observe how kids checked their blood sugars, all in the pursuit of developing a dual-hormone closed loop system.
- Dr. Derek van der Kooy, whom Lamb describes as “one of the most interesting characters” in the country’s diabetes research landscape. His work is focused on how neurons in the brain can inform how beta cells are regenerated in the pancreas. Lamb notes that he isn’t a typical researcher who relies on slides and a script to talk about his findings. Instead, he talks off the cuff and usually wears Bermuda shorts and baggy T-shirts during his research presentations.
- Dr. Tahani Baakdhah, a scientist and artist in Dr. van der Kooy’s lab who creates anatomically correct crochet versions of cells, and even has a released a book with her patterns.
- Dr. David Campbell at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, who is featured in one of the most moving chapters in Lamb’s book, titled “Home Sweet Home(less).” It describes a research exhibit by that same name by featuring a group of Toronto residents who live with both diabetes and homelessness, sharing their stories of access to food and care and trying to navigate all those challenges — including Campbell’s own experiences serving meals at homeless shelters during the research.
Another portion of the book that stands out is Lamb’s deep dive into the work behind the landmark Edmonton Protocol, that broke new ground in the area of pancreatic islet transplantation, beginning at the University of Alberta in 1999. “The Edmonton Protocol was a milestone achievement that significantly changed the T1D landscape,” said Dave Prowten, president and CEO of JDRF Canada.
In just the first months following her book’s release, Lamb said the response has been incredible from the research community. Compliments have streamed in, and she heard that some researchers bought copies of her book for everyone in their science labs.
Why hone in on Canada specifically? Lamb told DiabetesMine that it made the most sense to explore contributions from her own country and many whom she’s encountered personally in her writing and podcast work.
“I know there is amazing stuff happening all over the world, but this is my little corner and I thought it’d be a good place to start in telling some of these stories,” she said.
She’s pondering a future opportunity — beyond just in her podcasting — to highlight the work others have done globally.
Lamb says she particularly wanted to focus on the next generation of diabetes scientists and researchers, as a way to help give them hope when all too often they may not have enough of that. Often, younger researchers tend to focus too much on the pressure to publish rather than the bigger picture of advancing science in their field.
“So often, they don’t see the end-goal in their work beyond a research publication, and the impact it can truly have on the lives of people with diabetes,” Lamb said.
“I wanted (young researchers) to be able to look at this, so when they’re sitting in their labs late at night wondering why it is they’re doing this research, they can have some idea of those who’ve come before them and what they’ve achieved in making a difference. That what they do is important. That’s something that means a lot to me, to give them the hope and inspiration to keep doing this.”