In January 1922, at the Toronto City Hospital, pancreas extract was used for the first time in a diabetic fourteen-year-old Leonard Thompson. Two years later – in January 1924, at the National Institute of Hygiene (NIH) in Warsaw, the production of insulin began. Thus, Poland joined the group of several European countries that were the first to launch the production of a new drug. How did it happen that in the newly reborn Poland, in the period of great economic instability, it was possible?

Kazimierz Funk in Poland

In 1923, the head of the Department of Biochemistry, belonging to the Institute established in 1918 on the initiative of Ludwik Rajchman which in 1923 adopted the name of the State Institute of Hygiene, was a world-famous Polish biochemist, discoverer of the first vitamin B1 and creator of the term “vitamin” – Kazimierz Funk. It was possible due to the support of the Rockefeller Foundation which agreed to cover the salary of this distinguished scientist. It was Funk who decided to start making insulin and used his own money to buy the necessary equipment. The production was based on written works on the Banting and Best method, improved by Collip. Insulin was extracted from bovine pancreases. Kazimierz Funk supervised the manufacturing of insulin, and the production was conducted by the Serum Production Department led by Dr. Józef Celarek.

Due to the fact that the first insulin obtained by NIH was less purified and thus less effective than its foreign equivalents, Kazimierz Funk conducted research on the possibilities of improving its quality. He also conducted a number of other experiments, including those involving orally administered insulin. Unfortunately, in 1927 his contract at NIH expired and Funk left the country.

Work on insulin quality and production expansion

Despite the fact that domestic insulin was losing potency too quickly and therefore was not willingly used by Polish hospitals, its production increased year by year. In 1926, almost 1 million units of insulin were produced, and in 1929 – 1,390,000 units. After Kazimierz Funk’s departure, the supervision of insulin production was entrusted to Tomasz Spasowicz.

The young engineer, in relatively short time, succeeded in obtaining a crystalline insulin preparation with sustained potency, suitable for long-term storage. In addition, thanks to the modern distillation apparatus purchased in Berlin in 1929, the quantity of insulin produced increased significantly and its quality improved even more. J.W. Grott confirmed this in his work proving that the insulin produced in NIH since 1928 was equivalent in quality to foreign preparations.

Exports of domestic insulin began in 1935, first to Czechoslovakia and then to Estonia and Yugoslavia. In 1938, as much as one-third of the insulin produced was sold abroad.

In 1938, the production of zinc-protamine insulin began at NIH.

100 years later

After almost one hundred years, the BIOTON plant in Macierzysz near Warsaw is one of the most modern biotechnology plants in the world. This is where insulin is produced: the active ingredient as well as the finished dosage form.