Don Steiner died last week. You probably haven’t heard of him, unless you’re steeped in the lore of the University of Chicago or involved in the world of diabetes research.
Steiner is being remembered for discovering proinsulin, the hormonal precursor to insulin. As part of his work, he made the realization that proinsulin was made in the beta cells of the pancreas as two molecules bound together by a short molecule which came to be known as “c-peptide.” It’s not a stretch to say that his work was key in transitioning the mass manufacture of insulin away from grinding up the pancreases of cows and pigs to being able to manufacture pharmaceutical-grade insulin using modern technology.
Steiner was a throwback to a more innocent time in the world of biomedical research. As his Times obit states
Some of [Steiner’s] research could have been patented, but Dr. Steiner never considered doing that, said Dr. Arthur Rubenstein, a professor of medicine at and a former dean of the medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, who studied under Dr. Steiner and collaborated with him.
“There it was, one of the really, really great discoveries, and there was no patent,” Dr. Rubenstein said.
That decision was part of a pattern. “He shared everything with everybody,” Dr. Rubenstein said. Dr. Steiner, he said, gave his students ideas and time, made them first authors on scientific publications that would advance their careers, and even shared materials and data with competitors who did not always credit his contributions.
This would never happen today. Universities have become more sophisticated about intellectual property, entrepreneurialism, and—let’s be honest—profits.
The story about Steiner’s openness reminded me of his contemporary, Professor Gene Goldwasser. Goldwasser, also of the University of Chicago, spent two decades unraveling the secrets of the hormone EPO (erythropoietin). He, too, could have patented his discoveries, but he thought it too important to share his work to move the science forward. Some say had he patented his molecular discovery he (and the university he worked for) would have made hundreds of millions of dollars.
I was lucky enough to spend time with Goldwasser near the end of his life. He introduced me to Professor Steiner on a couple of occasions. They were great friends. The two of them were part of a golden age in bioscience at the University of Chicago, the place where in 1942 the first sustained atomic chain reaction took place under Enrico Fermi.
I know that Goldwasser felt that since taxpayers (i.e. the federal government) had supported his research career, there was no doubt his discoveries ‘belonged to all of us.’ I’ve no doubt that Steiner felt the same way.
The two of them shared not only a love for science, but were ‘fiends for culture,’ supporting the arts—they were lovers of music, drama, and studio art.
Their deaths not only are a huge loss in Chicago, but for the whole world.