Health TIME100: Joel Habener, Dan Drucker, Svetlana Mojsov and Jens Juul Holst

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NPowerful new weight-loss drugs became the biggest story in healthcare last year – and Dr. Jens Juul Holst, Dr. Joel Habener, Svetlana Mojsov and Dr. Scientists led the first work, starting in the 1970s, about glucagon-like peptides, or GLPs, which first transformed the treatment of diabetes and now that of obesity.

As with many innovative medical developments, it was a group effort. Holst of the University of Copenhagen (where he is currently professor of endocrinology and metabolism) noticed that after intestinal surgery, patients’ insulin levels soared, while their blood sugar levels dropped; he attributed the changes to several gut-related hormones, including glucagon, which is produced in the pancreas. Around the same time, an ocean and a continent away in Boston, Habener (who is now a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital) and Drucker worked with animals in the laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital and identified new types of glucagon hormones that they called GLP-1 and GLP-2. Mojsov, a chemist two floors away, also independently identified the active portion of GLP-1, which is mimicked in new weight-loss drugs as the main compound in Ozempic and Wegovy (made by Novo Nordisk), and one of the two main compounds. in Mounjaro and Zepbound (made by Eli Lilly). Mojsov (who is now an associate research professor at Rockefeller University) produced large quantities of the peptide and developed antibodies to stick to them. The trio eventually collaborated on critical scientific papers that described the active part of GLP-1 in the rat intestine and documented that increased GLP-1 levels corresponded to increased insulin levels.

Decades later, this understanding led to the current revolution in diabetes and obesity treatments, which appear to be just the beginning for GLP-1-based drugs. The drugs have been approved to reduce the risk of heart disease, and researchers are studying them as potential therapies for kidney and liver diseases, brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, and many others. “I don’t intend for GLP-1 drugs to work for every condition they’re being studied for,” says Drucker, now a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto’s Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute. “But if they show benefits for even half of these conditions, then it will be a tremendous victory for the people who struggle with them.”

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