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The Second World War


The physiology lab: Experimenting with insulin
Christian de Duve Scientist
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I had no special... special liking, but I had, entering the lab, seen a group working on a dog and they were actually removing the liver of that dog which was a tremendously risky operation and very... very interesting. I saw them all work and I was attracted by this kind of work. I wouldn't be attracted today, I think, but at that time, somehow I didn't have the respect that we now have for animals. And so, that group was actually working on insulin and they... they were removing the liver of dogs to find out whether... to what extent this would influence the amount of glucose taken up, under the influence of insulin. And so they worked on the mechanism of action of insulin, but with very simple techniques which was, basically, injecting glucose and measuring the blood sugar level and... and that was about it, except for the operations as surgery. So I was attracted by that group and started working with it and soon became extremely interested in the whole problem of how insulin... active insulin had been discovered only 15 years before, 1922, and there was still many things that weren't known about insulin, and one major problem that was being discussed at that time, and had been discussed ever since Claude Bernard, was to what extent was the liver involved in the action of insulin? And there were two main schools. One school was that... maintained that the liver was an important site. That when you injected insulin instead of producing glucose, from glycogen, which the liver does normally... or from other substances, which the liver does most of the time, it would reverse... insulin would reverse the flow and glucose would be taken up by the liver, under the influence of insulin and accumulate as glycogen and so on. The other school said, no, the liver has nothing to do with it, or the liver goes on making glucose and the effect of insulin is mainly on the muscles, on the peripheral tissues which take up the glucose, or more glucose under the influence of insulin. And, in fact, the reason why they took the liver out of those dogs was to find out whether this would decrease the amount of glucose taken up under the influence of insulin, which it did very much. And so, our group joined, I would say, the liver faction, in this controversy we said the liver plays a very important role and... I became more and more interested in that question.

Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve (1917-2013) was best known for his work on understanding and categorising subcellular organelles. He won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1974 for his joint discovery of lysosomes, the subcellular organelles that digest macromolecules and deal with ingested bacteria.

Listeners: Peter Newmark

Peter Newmark has recently retired as Editorial Director of BioMed Central Ltd, the Open Access journal publisher. He obtained a D. Phil. from Oxford University and was originally a research biochemist at St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical School in London, but left research to become Biology Editor and then Deputy Editor of the journal Nature. He then became Managing Director of Current Biology Ltd, where he started a series of Current Opinion journals, and was founding Editor of the journal Current Biology. Subsequently he was Editorial Director for Elsevier Science London, before joining BioMed Central Ltd.

Tags: 1922, Claude Bernard

Duration: 3 minutes, 38 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008