Emerging Technologies in an Unequal World
Edited by Susan Cozzens and Dhanaraj Thakur
Chapter 3: Uneven publics: life, death, and recombinant insulin
We begin the technology stories with the case of recombinant insulin, the only one of our technologies that makes the difference between life and death for those who have no suitable alternative. The growing prevalence of the metabolic disease diabetes mellitus at the global level has resulted in the widespread adoption and use of commercially available insulin products. Insulin is a naturally occurring hormone produced by the pancreas to regulate blood sugar levels but if its production or action is impaired, then individuals suffer from diabetes. Nowadays, because of technological advancements and the marketing strategies of the drug companies, the main form of medicinal insulin available on the market is recombinant insulin, a biotechnology-based product. The commercial product is synthesized in bacterial or yeast cells that have their genetic material modified to include the nucleotide sequence coding for insulin. Insulin is a product that epitomizes a set of specific health technologies: it is the accomplishment, on the one hand, of the researchers who identified the disease diabetes and its causes, and, on the other, of the firms that developed the production technologies, which evolved from the isolation of the hormone from animal tissue to production by genetically modified organisms. Since a small number of multinational firms tightly control the technologies, through every legal means at their disposal, we might expect access to be limited; but the opposite is the case.
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