May 10, 2013

Of Beer and Insulin

I was pretty psyched to see Lilly’s insulin factory. I had no idea how the stuff got into those little bottles. I had seen the picture of pork pancreas stacked 10,000 pounds high that was used in the old days to make one pound of insulin crystals. It is in Breakthrough, the book about the discovery of insulin by Thea Copper and Arthur Ainsberg. I knew that pork piles aren’t the means of making insulin now. I did not know much more.

Much to my delight I found making insulin is a lot like brewing beer. The folks at Lilly may not have been delighted by my comparison but they were good sports about it. While I can brew an acceptable ale at home, I am sure I can't cook up a batch of insulin.

Some of the finer Belgian beers are crafted by Trappists Monks and fermented with wild yeast that happens to float into the brewery. Wild bugs may be great for a Belgian Lambic but are not so great for insulin. A multitude of little microorganism would love to grow up in a big old vat of glucose. So Lilly goes to great lengths to keep them out. Just like home brewing (only more so) sterilization is a big deal for insulin production.

Beer is made by putting water and sugar from malted grain and some yeast in a clean sealed bucket. The yeast eats the sugar, excretes CO2 and alcohol, while multiplying like crazy. At some point the yeast can’t grow any more and it dies off. The brewer separates the beer from the mass of dead yeast and put the beer in a bottle with a pinch of extra sugar to carbonate it.

Lilly has some little tiny critters that eat glucose, replicate and in the process sequence a DNA string that just happens to be insulin (and by ‘just happens’ I mean is very carefully engineered). They start with a teeny amount of these critters, like about an ounce, and end up with 50 tons of glucose water in bunch of (very clean) vats fermenting the little guys. Unlike beer Lilly are after the bugs and filter out the water. They filter, wash, spin and process and end up with less than 50 pounds of insulin crystals. A pinch of those 50 pounds will be mixed with sterile solution to fill a bottle. All told a batch makes around a half billion ‘units’ of insulin.

   Photo courtesy of Lilly

About clean: To see the bottling room, from the other side of glass, the tour had to put on hair nets, smocks, booties and for the facially haired, beard masks. That was to look though said piece of glass into the clean room. The guys in the room (or girls it was not really clear their gender for all the garb they were wearing) apparently spend a half hour dressed up. Nothing human exposed, breathing through respirators they were more suited up that what you see in a bio scare flick. The room was beyond surgically clean and 8 vials at a time filled as they looked on. Eight at a time, all day, to the tune of more than a million vials week.

So let review: Like beer insulin is fermented filtered processed and bottled. Like brewing beer sterilization really matters. Unlike beer the process of insulin is not so easy you can do it in the kitchen.

My friends Scott and Scott have posts about the tour that dose not involve beer
here:  and

But for those still with me here is a handy graphic to help with my comparison.

Lilly Diabetes invited and paid for me to attend the 2013 summit. Airfare, lodging, food and transportation was all covered by Lilly. They did not ask me to write about my experience. My comments are my own.  I did check the numbers in the info graphic with them. 


  1. Holy infographic Batman! :-)


  2. And yet more reasons in the long list of why I adore you:
    - I used to brew beer. Damn good at it, too.
    - One of my favorite alcoholic beverages when I lived in Europe was gueuze. (Yep. Lambic.) Delicious. (My other is Grottenbier. Someday.)
    - You used the coolest infographic I've ever seen.
    - I now understand how my insulin is manufactured and have a better understanding of why it's so expensive. All those hairnets and beardnets.

  3. This is fantastic! Thoroughly enjoyed this post :)

  4. ahh...

    I need to try some of your home brew Christel and you may as well bring enough for Shara too. You two would be dangerous together and I mean that in the very best way.

  5. Love that diagram! Thanks for sharing what you've learned.

  6. Love the comparison. Also a homebrewer here. :-)