ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

7 February 2002


Genetically engineered insulin is cheaper to produce. "Most doctors and health professionals are unaware of the high number of reports linking serious adverse reactions to synthetic insulin because Health Canada maintains a veil of secrecy"
Diabetics demand insulin safety probe
The Globe and Mail, Canada, Wednesday, February 6, 2002

A group of diabetics and their physicians are calling for a public inquiry into the safety of insulin, saying that newer, genetically engineered products are sickening and perhaps even killing Canadians. They are also demanding that Health Canada ensure that an old-fashioned form of insulin, derived from animals, be made more widely available.

"In the last year, I've spoken to about 250 people who've had serious reactions to genetically engineered insulin," said Colleen Fuller, a spokeswoman for the Society for Diabetic Rights. In fact, using the access-to-information law, the new group has discovered that eight Canadians had died after taking synthetic insulin as of January, 2001. Another 465 people had adverse reactions. By comparison, only nine diabetics reported adverse reactions to pork insulin, and none to beef insulin. In the United States, there have been 92 reported deaths, and 4,000 adverse reactions reported by diabetics using synthetic insulin.

"Most doctors and health professionals are unaware of the high number of reports linking serious adverse reactions to synthetic insulin because Health Canada maintains a veil of secrecy," said Brenda Johnson, a member of the society. She switched to pork insulin after lapsing into a coma while using synthetic insulin. "When diabetics tell their doctors they're having problems, they're dismissed out of hand. Not only are doctors unaware that many other people are having the same problems, but they don't know that animal insulin is a safe and available alternative," she said. Ms. Johnson said the group feels a public inquiry is justified because there has been an absence of monitoring of the drug's safety after it was approved by Health Canada. She said this is unacceptable, particularly given the fact that insulin was the first genetically engineered medication ever approved for use in humans. The Society for Diabetic Rights will formally call for an inquiry at a press conference today on Parliament Hill.

There are about two million diabetics in Canada, about 220,000 of whom are insulin-dependent. Insulin replaces a hormone that is usually produced by the pancreas for people whose bodies do not manufacture it naturally; without insulin, diabetes is potentially fatal. John Hunt, an endocrinologist and former head of the Canadian Diabetes Association, said that most diabetics can use genetically engineered insulin without incident, but a significant minority suffer from adverse reactions. He said the most common problem is hypoglycemia unawareness, in which diabetics lose their ability to feel that their blood sugars are low. This can lead to confusion, an inability to concentrate and insulin shock, in which a person can slip into a coma and die. "The effects of hypoglycemia and loss of warnings on the lives of some diabetics and their families can be enormous," Dr. Hunt said. He continues to treat a number of his patients with animal insulin.

Synthetic insulin was introduced to Canada in 1982. In 1995, one of the two major insulin manufacturers, Novo Nordisk, withdrew all its animal insulin from Canada, leaving diabetics with no choice. Eli Lilly, the other major insulin maker, stopped selling beef insulin in 1999, and makes a limited amount of pork insulin available for import. The manufacturers insist that the products are safe. Genetically engineered insulin is cheaper to produce, and drug makers say it is safer because there is no risk of patients contracting animal diseases.

(c) 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc.

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