In early February 2019, amid continued public outcry over the soaring cost of life-saving pharmaceuticals, readers shared a screen-captured image on social media of a local news stationās reporting on the story of a woman who said she bought inexpensive insulin without a prescription at Walmart:
Readers asked us whether this was true. It is true, althoughĀ you should noteĀ Walmart sells human insulin, an older version of the glucose-moderating hormone, whereas most insulin-dependent diabetics are currently prescribed insulin analogs that have evolved to help prevent dangerous swings in blood-glucose levels.
The screenshot above was taken from a 4 February 2019 news broadcast from DallasāFort Worth television station KDFW:
Although this revelation might be important, life-saving information for diabetics, an important caveat is that human insulin behaves differently than the newer analog insulin currently retailing for more than $300 a vial.
Dr. Todd Hobbs, chief medical officer for Novo Nordisk, wrote that the different types of insulin have the same effect of lowering blood-glucose levels, but, āTraining is required whenever someone is prescribed insulin, whether that be human insulin or the newer analog insulin products. Differences in the timing of all types of insulin must be considered for patients to effectively use them ā¦ The difference in the types of insulin is related to how slowly or rapidly they are absorbed once injected. Scientific advances over the years have made improvements on the speed and length of time this absorption occurs.ā
Diabetes Forecast, a health-oriented magazine associated with the American Diabetics Association, explained the history of the two types of insulin and the difference in health benefits this way:
In the 1970s, researchers discovered how to program bacteria in the lab to manufacture human insulin, and in 1982, regular human insulin became the first ārecombinant DNAā drug product. āItās a very pure, clean product, and itās exactly what we as humans make,ā [Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy associate professor and a spokesman for the American Association of Diabetes Educators Evan] Sisson says. Human insulin is now available as short-acting āregularā (or āRā) insulin, which is used at mealtimes, and intermediate-acting NPH (or āNā) insulin, which is used as a basal insulin ā¦
While the development of human insulin was a major advancement, it wasnāt perfect. Regular insulin didnāt hit the bloodstream quick enough to cover the rapid absorption of carbohydrates after meals, and it stuck around too long after meals, causing hypoglycemia [low blood glucose, which can lead to unconsciousness and death if untreated]. In 1996, Eli Lilly introduced the first rapid-acting insulin analog to the market: insulin lispro (Humalog). Insulin aspart (Novo Nordiskās Novolog) and insulin glulisine (Sanofiās Apidra) quickly followed. With rapid-acting insulin analogs, onset occurs 10 to 20 minutes after injection, instead of the 30 to 60 minutes it takes for regular human insulin to take effect. This allows people to inject their insulin right before a meal, rather than having to dose 30 minutes or more before eating ā¦
Deliver a dose of NPH [human] insulin, and itāll reach its peak about six to eight hours later. This means your insulin may peak while youāre sleeping, posing a serious danger if you donāt wake up to treat. Long-acting analogs, on the other hand, donāt peak, resulting in more-stable blood glucose levels and fewer unexpected highs or lows. In fact, one study showed that long-acting analog insulin glargine reduced overnight bouts of hypoglycemia by up to 48 percent compared with NPH. In another study, detemir reduced nighttime hypoglycemia by 34 percent. This is especially beneficial for people with type 1, who need to be much more precise about matching insulin dosages with their insulin needs to avoid nighttime lows, says Sisson.
Note, there are two types of diabetes. Type 1 diabeticsā bodies cannot manufacture insulin, the hormone responsible for glucose absorption. Type 2 diabeticsā bodies, on the other hand, become resistant to insulin. In most cases, Type 1 diabetes starts in childhood, whereas Type 2 is sometimes referred to as āadult-onsetā diabetes.
Writing for Insulin Nation, Nicki Nichols explained why the older form of human insulin is difficult to control in children:
When my child was first diagnosed, she was on NPH. It was incredibly difficult to limit a growing childās diet to such a strict schedule. Hereās what it looked like:
8 a.m.- 45-carb meal
10:30 a.m. ā 15-carb snack
12 p.m. ā 45-carb meal
2 p.m. ā 15-carb snack
5 p.m. ā 45-carb meal
7:30 p.m. ā 15-20 carb snack before bed to keep blood sugar up overnight.
I cannot tell you how many times my child refused to eat the 45 carbs in her dinner. There is something wrong when you are fussing at your 5-year-old to stop eating her green beans and to eat her bread, or mashed potatoes, or pasta.
The screen shot from the KDFW report no doubt went viral as a result of an ongoing controversy over the cost of analog insulin, which as of 7 February 2019Ā soared to a retail price of more than $300 per vial. Americans have been awash in medical horror stories such the death of Jesse Lutgen, a 32-year-old Type 1 diabetic who lost his job at a distribution center in Dubuque, Iowa, and with it, his health insurance. He was found dead in his home in February 2018, having run out of insulin. His last vials of the medication were given to him by a friend.