Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Nobel Committee Doesn't Get to Say Who's Best

Physiologist Charles Best was born on this day in 1899 in West Pembroke, Maine.

A former sergeant in the Canadian tank corps during World War I and a University of Toronto grad who paid for his education by playing minor league baseball, Charles Best joined Frederick Banting in John J.R. MacLeod's Toronto physiology lab in 1922. Banting was also a Canadian war veteran: he had joined the Canadian Army medical corps right after medical school and was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in action in World War I. After the War, Banting began studying the pancreas -- particularly the already-discovered connection between pancreatic activity and diabetes mellitus. At MacLeod's lab, Banting experimented with a new method he had devised of attempting to isolate the pancreatic hormone that regulates blood sugar. Best became his chief assistant.

MacLeod was skeptical; but while MacLeod was away on vacation, Banting and Best closed the pancreatic ducts of dogs and mined the islets of Langerhans for an extraction which was free of other pancreatic substances. They then used the substance on diabetic dogs and observed the reduction of their blood sugar. When MacLeod returned, he brought in his chemist James Collip to purify the extractions for human use. Banting, Best and Collip received a patent for the resulting hormone, named insulin by MacLeod, and licensed it for production by Eli Lilley & Co.

Meanwhile, MacLeod and Banting were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923, but Banting was angry that MacLeod received any credit at all while Best received none, and threatened to refuse the prize. Instead Banting took the prize and divided it with Best, while MacLeod divided his with Collip, before taking his leave of Toronto and returning to Scotland permanently as professor of physiology at Aberdeen. Banting assumed the leadership of Toronto's Banting-Best research department in 1930, and focused his research on cancer and adrenal cortex function.

As leader of the Banting-Best department of medical research after Banting's death, Best went on to discover choline, a vitamin used in treating liver damage, and histaminase, an enzyme used in breaking down histamine, the hormone transmitter which produces the symptoms of allergy; to introduce the use of heparin as an anticoagulant; and to show that zinc could be used to prolong the activity of insulin.



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