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With diabetes on the rise, Canadian doctor awarded for advancing treatment

Dr. Daniel Drucker is the sole Canadian winner of the 2021 Canada Gairdner International Award . Photo credit: Johnny Guatto/University of Toronto

A Canadian doctor has been awarded for his decades-long research on gut hormones that has advanced the treatment of Type 2 diabetes, obesity and intestinal disorders.

Dr. Daniel Drucker, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and senior scientist at Sinai Health’s Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, and two other colleagues on Wednesday were named laureates of the 2021 Canada Gairdner International Award.

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“We’ve been studying these hormones for 35 years and it’s now apparent that they can become very powerful,” Drucker, 64, told Global News in an interview.

“We’re really in the midst of a brand-new era of intervention using our body’s own hormones to help us with chronic inflammatory diseases.”

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Drucker and his colleagues Joel Habener of Harvard Medical School and Jens Holst of the University of Copenhagen discovered hormones called glucagon-like peptides (GLP-1 and -2) that control the levels of insulin and glucagon, which work together to maintain healthy sugar levels in our blood.

Their research has led to the development of multiple types of treatments, specifically for the more common Type 2 diabetes, which accounts for 90 per cent of total diabetes cases – and is becoming increasingly common in children – in Canada.

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Currently, one in three Canadians is living with diabetes or prediabetes, according to Diabetes Canada. And cases are rising with an increased intake of high-calorie, processed foods, Drucker said.

Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs when the body is unable to produce or properly use insulin, which is a hormone that controls blood sugar levels.

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If left uncontrolled, diabetes results in consistently high levels of blood sugar, which can lead to serious complications such as cardiovascular disease, vision loss, kidney failure, nerve damage and amputation.

Diabetes is also among the top 10 causes of deaths globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Drucker said that while a cure for diabetes seems “very unlikely,” it can be kept in check and reversed with diet, weight loss and medication.

‘If we invest in the science, I have no doubt that we’re going to see tremendous advances in both types of diabetes,’ said Drucker. Photo credit: Sinai Health Foundation

“It starts with our cities in that we can build opportunities for people to get out and walk and live healthy lives and not have to constantly search for a store with healthy produce or live in a food desert where only unhealthy choices are available,” he said.

Drucker said schools can also play a role in emphasizing the importance of physical education and exercise to curb the uptick in diabetes.

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“So I think there’s a lot we can do at multiple levels, not just as individuals but as a society, to bring ourselves to a healthier point.”

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Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the award ceremony will be moved online later this year.

Nicknamed the “baby Nobels,” one in four recipients of the Gairdners go on to win the prestigious Nobel prizes.

Each year, seven awards are handed out by the Gairdner Foundation and the winners each receive $100,000 in prize money.

“I think it’s just a wonderful recognition of the work that I have been privileged to carry out with so many students and trainees and collaborative colleagues, not just in Toronto, but all around the world,” said Drucker.

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