Pitt the site of many insulin breakthroughs



"... If I needed to have these shots every day for the rest of my life, the only way I'd survive was to do it myself."

-- Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in "My Beloved World"

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a public conversation with University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg last week at Carnegie Music Hall, credited the demands of managing her juvenile diabetes in fostering her spirit of independence that led to her storied judicial career.

Her 2013 best-selling memoir opens with her waking up to the sounds of yelling between her parents in the family's Bronx public housing unit over who would be giving her insulin shots for her newly diagnosed type 1 diabetes.

Just 7, she decided she'd have to do it herself -- especially if she wanted to keep visiting her beloved grandmother. She stepped on a chair by the kitchen stove to try to sterilize the needle in the gas flame. "I was barely tall enough to see the top of the stove, and I wasn't sure how to perform the tricky maneuver with match and gas to light the burner," she wrote.

Fortunately her mother found her and helped guide her through the process. She has been responsible for her own diabetes treatment ever since.

Mr. Nordenberg read that passage at the opening of their conversation to highlight the difficulties she faced in her early years and how she faced them.

At the end of the evening, he presented her with a framed article in a recent PittMed magazine, which featured a story on the 1964 breakthrough by a Pitt team led by professor Panayotis Katsoyannis, which synthesized insulin for the first time.

Everyone thinks of Jonas Salk's polio vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh, he told the justice. But in 1964, Pitt researchers also created synthetic insulin.

Before the discovery, only insulin obtained from the pancreases of animals had been available to treat those with type 1 diabetes, the condition in which patients cannot produce enough insulin to help the body convert sugar to energy. Public health workers feared that with the dramatic increase of diabetes cases worldwide in the mid-20th century, the supply of animal-sourced insulin would not keep up with demand.

Later in 1977, the first genetically engineered, synthetic "human" insulin was produced in a laboratory by Pitt post-grad Herbert Boyer. He developed a method to use bacteria to generate synthetic human insulin. This was part of research being done by his company Genentech, the world's first biotech company.


Virginia Linn: vlinn@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1662.

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