The gut is a busy place, helping us take food and make it into the energy and nutrients we need every day. 2021 Gairdner International Award laureates Daniel Drucker, Jens Juul Holst, and Joel Habener have spent their careers understanding how the gut works and applying those insights to therapies for patients.
“I work on gut hormones,” says Drucker. “These are specialized messengers that our body’s gut makes that help with the ingestion of food, the digestion of our meals, and the subsequent assimilation and direction of those nutrients to be stored as energy.”
“The gut is an endocrine organ, it is a hormone-secreting organ, and some of those regulate the pancreas — insulin, for instance — and others directly regulate appetite and food intake. So this has been a major focus for us,” adds Holst.
These award-winning researchers took their understanding of the biology of gut hormones and translated that understanding into new medicines. Their work spans a wide variety of medical conditions, providing treatments options that were previously impossible.
“We have been able to turn these gut hormones into new, very effective medicines to treat type 2 diabetes, to help people with obesity lose substantial amounts of weight, and to help people with intestinal failure become no longer dependent on intravenous nutrition,” explains Drucker.
These innovations have taken decades to fully realize, but they have improved the health of a mind boggling number of people.
“We’ve been working for the last 40 years, believe it or not, on the actions and efficacy of two intestinal hormones — GLP-1 and GLP-2 — that control the assimilation and metabolism of nutrients,” says Habener.
GLP-1 and GLP-2 help control levels of insulin and glucagon, which work together to maintain healthy levels of blood sugar.
“To date over a hundred million people with type 2 diabetes have been effectively treated with GLP-1 therapies,” adds Habener.
That kind of reach motivates them to find ways to apply their basic research to patient treatments.
“Understanding opportunities to help people through science is tremendously appealing,” says Drucker, “and that’s exactly how the story has turned out.”