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From Cow Juice to a Billion Dollar Drug, With Some Breakthroughs in Between


Justin F. Shaffer
Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering
Colorado School of Mines


Before the discovery of insulin in 1921, being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes was a death sentence. Despite the successful management of diabetes with purified animal insulin, potentially severe side effects were abundant, and alternative ways to produce insulin were needed. This case study guides students through the history of using insulin to treat diabetes, focusing on the development of recombinant DNA technology and the world's first bioengineered drug, recombinant human insulin, which is now used worldwide to treat diabetes. Through the course of this case, students consider the central dogma of molecular biology, the development of recombinant DNA technology, drug design, the importance of recombinant proteins to our society, and the ethical analysis and debates that occur as a result of some scientific discoveries. This case was developed as an introduction to an upper-division biotechnology course focusing on recombinant protein design and production, but could also be used in molecular biology, biochemistry, or introductory biology courses to highlight recombinant DNA and biotechnology.

  • Define diabetes and describe how insulin is used as a treatment.
  • Describe the historical developments of recombinant DNA technology and recombinant insulin.
  • Draw and outline the basic steps used to create a recombinant protein.
  • Evaluate the use of recombinant DNA technology in terms of the potential risks and rewards.
  • Justify why recombinant proteins are essential to medicine and the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.
Keywords: Recombinant DNA; recombinant protein; insulin; diabetes; drug design
Topical Area: Ethics, History of science, Regulatory issues
Educational Level: Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Directed, Discussion, Interrupted
Language: English
Subject Headings: Biotechnology   Cell Biology   Molecular Biology   Biochemistry   Physiology   Medicine (General)   Public Health   Pharmacy / Pharmacology   Biology (General)  
Date Posted: 5/29/2013
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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