Insulin Discovery Centenary

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 1st September 2021.

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Photo of David Torrance David Torrance Scottish National Party

I thank Emma Harper for bringing to the Parliament such a noteworthy motion, which is an acknowledgement and celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the discovery of insulin.

In November 1920, a group of highly talented and determined individuals came together at the University of Toronto in Canada to help one another in the pursuit of a single purpose: to understand the cause of type 1 diabetes. Understanding the cause meant having a chance of treating the condition and drastically improving the lives of millions of people across the world.

The discovery of insulin and its rapid clinical deployment effectively transformed type 1 diabetes from a fatal diagnosis into a medically manageable chronic condition. It became the first life-saving treatment for diabetes.

Scotland has a rich history and tradition of innovation, and Scots have always been at the forefront of the advancement of humanity. Scotland’s legacy with the development of the insulin pen is no exception. Dr Sheila Reith, Dr John Ireland and John Paton—all medical specialists in the greater Glasgow area—began their journey to improve the lives of people with diabetes roughly 60 years after the first pioneers from the University of Toronto discovered insulin. The invention and subsequent refinement of the insulin pen has been such a success that the vast majority of insulin used worldwide is now administered through the use of an insulin pen. That increases the accuracy of doses, reduces pain and, most important, promotes ease of use. Insulin pens have had the effect of allowing those with diabetes to more constantly manage their condition and reduce serious complications related to the disease.

However, it is not nearly enough to refine ways of managing diabetes. There is still much work to be done in reducing the number of people in Scotland who have diabetes. The prevalence of type 2 diabetes is still a significant health challenge and a leading cause of ill health in Scotland. The latest data show us that an all-time high of roughly 312,000 individuals in Scotland now live with diabetes, and 6,400 people died from complications related to diabetes in 2019 alone. In addition to those figures, it has been estimated that roughly 10 per cent of those with diabetes remain undiagnosed.

The Scottish Government has taken positive steps towards tackling those issues, and it has made significant progress since introducing the previous diabetes improvement plan in 2014. With ever-increasing access to technologies to help adults and children, as well as prevention campaigns such as the think, check, act scheme, and £42 million-worth of investment in a type 2 diabetes prevention framework, the Scottish Government is committed to making Scotland a healthier country.

However, we can do more, and that progress must continue. The centenary of the discovery of insulin represents an important opportunity to improve prevention, treatment and care for all people in Scotland who are affected by diabetes. The diabetes improvement plan for 2021 to 2026 reflects the current challenges facing people who are living with diabetes. It is an important step forward that builds on all the progress to date and supports the continued improvements in diabetes care. However, those improvements will be meaningful only if there is fair and equal access for everyone in Scotland. That is why I am so pleased to see equality of access identified as one of the eight priority areas in the improvement plan.

Many factors can impact on and disadvantage diabetes care and outcomes for people, and it is vital that those are addressed. Back in 2018, I met a number of patients living with type 1 diabetes in my constituency and campaigned alongside them to have the FreeStyle Libre system approved for use in Fife, after it received Scotland-wide approval in 2017. The system has been shown to offer life-changing improvements for people with diabetes who use insulin intensively, thereby reducing the complications of diabetes, including blindness, amputation and renal failure, and helping them to live healthier and fuller lives.

I will never forget the strength of feeling and the overwhelming emotional response from local people living with diabetes to the news of NHS Fife’s supplementary approval for use of the FreeStyle Libre system.

I once again thank Emma Harper for bringing the debate to the chamber, and acknowledge its celebration of the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin. I hope that the future of medical innovation surrounding the care and treatment of diabetes will be just as groundbreaking as previous innovations, and that it will bring about a world in which diabetes can do no harm.