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TANG PRIZE/Flexibility, curiosity, enjoyment key to success: Tang Prize laureates

06/19/2024 05:20 PM
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2024 Tang Prize recipients Joel Habener (left), Svetlana Mojsov (center), and Jens Juul Holst Source: Tang Prize Foundation
2024 Tang Prize recipients Joel Habener (left), Svetlana Mojsov (center), and Jens Juul Holst Source: Tang Prize Foundation

Taipei, June 19 (CNA) Flexibility, curiosity, and enjoyment are the keys to successful research, said the three 2024 Tang Prize laureates in Biopharmaceutical Science recognized for their contributions in discovering the function of a hormone that works to regulate blood glucose levels and related pharmaceutical development.

The three scientists, Joel Habener, Svetlana Mojsov, and Jens Juul Holst, were recognized for discovering Glucagon-like peptide-1 (7-37) (GLP-1 (7-37)) to be a bioactive hormone that stimulates insulin secretion and for using it to develop medication for diabetes and obesity, the Tang Prize Selection Committee announced Wednesday in Taipei.

The contributions of the three laureates surrounding GLP-1 (7-37), a 31-amino acid peptide, have led to drugs that have benefited "hundreds of millions of users with great future prospects" being developed, according to an award citation released by the Tang Prize Foundation.

Speaking to CNA, the three awardees highlighted the secrets behind their achievements.

Joel Habener: Start a new track

Habener, 86, said that the research process can be frustrating and that he has faced significant challenges, including when the United States government ordered a halt to research using recombinant DNA technology due to safety and ethical considerations.

As a result, the American researcher had to abandon using mice in his testing and instead use anglerfish, as the restriction did not apply to cold-blooded animals.

While cloning the preproglucagon gene from the anglerfish, the results of which were published in the early 80s, he discovered that this precursor protein contains glucagon and another glucagon-related peptide (GRP), leading to the subsequent advancements regarding GLP-1 (7-37).

Despite showing flexibility throughout his research journey, the emeritus professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School said slow research progress was frustrating, especially if it transpires the original hypothesis was incorrect.

"But it's a good thing because you realize, you recognize that you're on the wrong track," he said. "So, you start a new track, and go a different way."

Habener said in terms of advice he would give young scientists, based on his experience, it is crucial to be curious, keep an open mind and continue reading scientific literature to ensure they are up to date with the latest research advancements.

"Put things, thoughts together, and see how one pathway can lead to another," he said. "It's like a roadmap that you need to follow."

Svetlana Mojsov: Out of curiosity

Speaking to CNA at the Cohn Library at the Rockefeller University in New York, Mojsov, a Macedonian American, said that the discoveries she made in relation to GLP-1 (7-37) were initially sparked by "curiosity."

"I think it's really rewarding to know that something I did out of curiosity... actually has helped so many people all over the world," the 77-year-old said.

Mojsov identified the active form of intestinal GLP-1 to be GLP-1 (7-37) and collaborated with Habener to show that GLP-1 (7-37) can induce insulin release from the pancreas, rather than the entire GLP-1 (1-37).

This discovery was crucial in identifying the long-sought-after incretin and led to GLP-1 (7-37) being used in diabetes medication, according to the foundation.

Despite dedicating nearly half a century to research, the research associate professor at Rockefeller University has chosen not to rest on her laurels and continues her research in fish biology with her colleagues at the university.

"One thing fish and mammals and humans share [is] that GLP-1 also influences appetite... so that seems to be conserved (across these species)," Mojsov said. "If you understand how it's done in fish, which pathways are [being] done, maybe we can just try and see how that compares to the mammals," she added.

Jens Juul Holst: Do something fun

Classical music is often on full blast in Holst's office at the University of Copenhagen. The 78-year-old told CNA that as well as music, he also enjoys the fun he has in his research, work, and life.

"The most important [thing] really is to make sure [you] do something that you like, that you think is fun," Holst said, adding that performing surgery, conducting research, and working with his students have all been sources of fun for him.

"As long as it's fun, then you're almost guaranteed a nice life," he said.

The Danish professor and his team also isolated and identified GLP-1 (7-36) amide -- another truncated form of GLP-1 that is equally potent as GLP-1 (7-37) -- as an active incretin, and later characterized the biology and physiology of GLP-1 (7-37).

They also demonstrated the therapeutic potential of the bioactive hormone to reduce stomach acid and slow down gastric emptying, according to the foundation.

With decades of experience studying GLP-1, Holst said that the current focus is on understanding how GLP-1 can reduce cardiovascular disease, decrease the risk of stroke and heart failure, and prolong patient survival.

Holst, who cycles to and from home every day, said that he remains deeply passionate about both research and teaching, has no plans to retire, and would like to continue his work for as long as the University of Copenhagen is willing to employ him.

Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science

The Tang Prize, established by Ruentex Group Chairman Samuel Yin (尹衍樑) in 2012, is a set of biennial international awards honoring individuals who have made prominent contributions in four categories -- sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, sinology, and the rule of law.

The laureates in each category will share a cash award of NT$40 million (US$1.23 million) and a NT$10 million research grant. Notably, some of them have gone on to become Nobel Prize laureates after winning the Tang Prize.

The first winners of the Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science were James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo in 2014 for their work on immune inhibitory molecules. They later won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2018.

In 2016, the Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier, Jennifer Doudna, and Feng Zhang for the development of the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing platform. Charpentier and Doudna subsequently won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020.

Katalin Karikó, Drew Weissman, and Pieter Cullis received the 2022 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science for their contributions to the development of mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines. The following year, in 2023, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Karikó and Weissman.

(By Tony Liao, Ku Yong-li, Shih Hsiu-chuan and Sunny Lai)

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