Steiner revolutionized our understanding of the chemistry and biochemistry of polypeptide hormones. His contributions to understanding the biochemical nature of insulin production and the development of C-peptide measurement have had profound scientific and clinical implications.
In 1967, he showed that insulin was produced as a single chain, which he labelled proinsulin. That chain was then cleaved to release the two-chain insulin molecule and a new peptide, the C-peptide. The discovery of proinsulin established the field of protein-precursor processing, paving the way to understanding how many other peptide hormones—as well as neuropeptides in the brain and endocrine system—are made and processed. Steiner and colleagues later discovered an even larger precursor of proinsulin, which they labelled preproinsulin.
The discovery of proinsulin enabled the pharmaceutical industry to improve the purity of insulin preparations extracted from animals and paved the way for biosynthetic human insulin production. This led to insulins that were less likely to provoke an immune response. His work enhanced the management of diabetes and created a better life for millions of diabetic patients worldwide.
The immunoassay that Steiner and Arthur Rubenstein developed for C-peptide provided a useful independent indicator of insulin secretion. It also is valuable in the diagnosis of insulin-secreting tumors of the pancreas and the evaluation of the success of islet transplants.
Working with Arthur Rubenstein and Howard S. Tager, Steiner described the first mutations in the insulin gene associated with syndromes of mild diabetes and elevated circulating insulin. The first abnormal insulin is now known as Insulin Chicago. He later contributed to important work on understating how insulin binds to its receptor.
Donald Frederick Steiner was born in Lima, Ohio, on July 15, 1930. He earned his BS in chemistry and zoology from the University of Cincinnati in 1952, followed by an MS in biochemistry and an MD from the University of Chicago in 1956. He completed his internship at King County Hospital in Seattle, followed by a residency and post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Washington and was asked to join the biochemistry faculty at the University of Chicago in 1960. He rose quickly through the ranks becoming professor in 1968 and chairman of biochemistry in 1973.
He served as Director of the University of Chicago Diabetes-Endocrinology Center (1974-78), associate director (1977-81) and director (2000-04) or co-director (2004-present) of the University of Chicago Diabetes Research and Training Center. From 1985 to 2006 he was a Senior Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Chicago.
Steiner published nearly 400 peer-reviewed papers, and his work has been cited by other researchers more than 10,000 times. He won dozens of prestigious national and international honors and awards, often several per year, including the Lilly Award and the Banting Medal from the American Diabetes Association, the Joslin Medal from the New England Diabetes Association, Israel’s Wolf Prize, and the ManpeiSuzuki International Prize for Diabetes Research—the largest financial award for diabetes research—which honors “those who have enlightened researchers in the field of diabetes around the world with their original and excellent scientific achievements.” This summer he was awarded the University of Chicago Alumni Medal.
Steiner was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1972, the National Academy of Sciences in 1973, and the American Philosophical Society, the United States’ oldest learned society, in 2004.
In addition to his seminal contributions to science, Don Steiner has had a profound impact at the University of Chicago, particularly on the diabetes program. The broad implications of his discoveries of the pathways of insulin biosynthesis and secretion, placed the University of Chicago at the forefront of diabetes research and has enabled not only many additional research discoveries but also the recruitment of faculty, the training of students and our ability to raise philanthropic support for our academic programs.