Groundbreaking Diabetes Researcher Dies at Age 84

On Tuesday, November 11, 2014, America lost Dr. Donald F. Steiner, one of the most prominent researchers of diabetes in the past century. His work on the proinsulin hormone gave the scientific community vital information on how the pancreas creates insulin and it’s purpose in the body.

Born in 1930, Steiner graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Zoology from the University of Cincinnati in 1952, and went on to complete his Master of Science in Biochemistry(’56) and his M.D.(’56) at the University of Chicago.

Steiner became an assistant professor of biochemistry at the University of Chicago in 1960. At this time, everyone knew about insulin, as it had been used for 40 years to treat diabetes, but no one knew how it was created.

Donald Steiner, MD ’56

The insulin molecule consisted of two separate chains of amino acids, the monomers that make up proteins. The two chains are joined crosswise at predetermined points, which led to the question of how these two chains were created. Dr. Steiner worked on this question in a basement of an old laboratory.

Steiner used a surgically removed insulin producing tumor of the pancreas to study the insulin hormone. In 1967, Dr. Steiner made a breakthrough, discovering that the insulin hormone was originally one chain that was broken into two chains, contrary to popular belief at the time.

His research led to a more pure form of insulin injections, because insulin manufacturers were using animal pancreases, usually pigs or cows, and patients were having reactions to the impure injections. Later, research that led to manufacturers using yeast and bacteria leaned on Dr. Steiner’s work.

His work also helped lead to ways to monitor insulin in patients, better equipping doctors and patients with information on the severity of the condition. Even though some of his discoveries could have been patented, he chose not to because, as Professor Rubenstein of University of Pennsylvania (former collaborator with Dr. Steiner) said: “He shared everything with everybody.”

According to Dr. Rubenstein, He was generous with students in both time and ideas, helping them advance their career by making them first authors on publications, and he even shared information with competitors who did not always credit him.

He went on to research mutations that could disrupt insulin production and cause rare forms of diabetes. He wrote hundreds of articles and received many scientific awards from all over the world. He was truly a great man, by all accounts humble and gentlemanly, and he never looked for any reward besides the feeling of discovery.

Interview with Dr. Steiner:

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