HSC Biology Recombinant technology: Insulin production

After this lesson you will be able to:

  • investigate the uses and advantages of current genetic technologies that induce genetic change
  • describe techniques and applications used in recombinant DNA technology, for example:
    • the development of transgenic organisms in agricultural and medical applications
  • evaluate the benefits of using genetic technologies in agricultural, medical and industrial applications
  • interpret a range of secondary sources to assess the influence of social, economic and cultural contexts on a range of biotechnologies


How miniature drug factories came to be.

Individuals with diabetes type 1 require insulin in order for their cells to take up the glucose in their blood. Insulin is normally released into the blood of patients by beta cells found in the pancreas. It lowers blood glucose by telling the cells to take in glucose from the blood. Diabetes type 1 is an autoimmune disease where the bodies own immune system attacks the insulin producing beta cells in the patients pancreas. This results in no regulation of blood glucose. If left untreated the patient can lose limbs, goes blind, fall into a coma or even die.

Therapeutic intervention first occurred with purified pig insulin, this was the first time being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes was not a death sentence. However, patients eventually developed an immune response against the insulin since it was not of human origin. Additionally, their was a risk of also transmitting a pig related infection into the patient and this treatment protocol was expensive.

Recombinant technology is when you take the gene from one species and combine it with the genetic information of another species.

This paved the way for producing human insulin in bacteria – creating transgenic species. The human gene for insulin production was isolated from the human genome, this is then packaged into a plasmid, which acts as a suitcase for genetic information. You can then coerce bacteria to take up the plasmid, then force them to make the protein encoded by the human insulin gene. Effectively, you create a miniature factory to produce human insulin.

Here is a 2 minute video to explain:

These days, insulin is produced in yeast cells since bacteria cells can’t do certain modifications which are required for human use such as glycosylation, however, this is beyond the scope of the course.

This technology has had far reaching implications, improving individuals health and standard of living as well as having enormous economic gains for pharmaceutical companies. However, a major limitation is it’s requirement for continual treatment, it is not a cure for diabetes.

Social factors:

Insulin has improved individuals standard of living, however, the treatment can be difficult to store creating some social inequality, in particular this is difficult for homeless people to store as they can’t access a fridge. Other social considerations are that it needs to be injected with a needle, this is challenging in certain settings – a recent improvement has been insulin which can be inhaled and absorbed through the lungs.

Economical factors:

Insulin has to be priced in a way which allows pharmaceutical companies to make money off the billions of dollars spent on developing the technology, however, individual patients still need to be able to afford treatment. Additional economical considerations can be quantified in terms of the increase in productivity through providing an individual the ability to function normally.

Ethical factors:

Some people are opposed to human insulin produced by other cell types. This is because they see this technology as ‘playing God’ since there is direct interference in another species evolution.

Legal factors:

Insulin is a type of biopharmaceutical, this brings with it certain challenges in it’s patenting. Patenting is a way for companies to protect their intellectual property so that other competitors don’t copy what they have developed. Once the companies patents run out, competitors can produce biosimilars. This is important since it prevents anyone company from having a monopoly in insulin production, which would limit innovation.


from studylib


Knowledge questions.

  1. Define what a recombinant technology is, using an example
  2. Outline why insulin production is required for individuals with type 1 diabetes
  3. Explain limitations of insulin purification from pigs
  4. Explain how bacteria can be made to produce insulin

HSC Style questions.

Question 1.

Evaluate the socioeconomic implications of human insulin production using bacteria [6 marks]

Question 2.

“Diabetes type 1 is an autoimmune disease where the bodies own immune system attacks the insulin producing beta cells in the patients pancreas. This results in no regulation of blood glucose. If left untreated the patient can lose limbs, goes blind, fall into a coma or even die.”

Outline the benefits and limitations of using lab grown insulin in the treatment of type 1 diabetes. [6 marks]

Question 3.

Explain how human insulin can be manufactured in the lab using recombinent genetic technologies [4 marks]


Coming soon.

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