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His study paved the way for drugs that help millions (including his mother-in-law)

Daniel Drucker on the importance of basic science, commercialization and failure

“We always have a little light on that says, beyond the pure joy and satisfaction of understanding how this works, might this be relevant to treatment of human disease, and might this have commercialization potential?” (photo by Bernardo Yusta)

When Daniel Drucker was a postdoctoral fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital in the mid-1980s, he worked in a lab studying GLP-1, a hormone released in your gut after you eat.

Like any good scientist, he was motivated by curiosity. He wanted to know how this uncharted biological process worked and what effects it had in the body.

What he didn’t know back then – what he couldn’t have known – was that 19 years later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would approve a new class of drugs for the treatment of type 2 diabetes based on his work on GLP-1.

Subsequent work on a chemical that gets in the way of gut hormones doing their jobs yielded another class of drug called DDP-4 inhibitors. Both classes of drugs help people with diabetes lower their blood sugar without causing weight gain or hypoglycaemia, which were troublesome side effects of previous generations of drugs.

Today, millions of people – including Drucker’s own mother-in-law – benefit from these drugs.

“The path to commercial success and the introduction of a drug to the clinic is not always a rapid, straightforward journey,” he says. “There are all kinds of challenges to be met, and it can be a long and difficult process. But many things in life are like that.”

Drucker, who is today a professor of medicine at U of T and a senior investigator at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital, has gone on to repeat his commercialization success. In addition to paving the way for the development of diabetes drugs, his lab discovered the actions of another hormone, GLP-2, and filed a series of patents describing how it improves intestinal growth and function. Today, teduglutide, a drug for short bowel syndrome based on that research, is available in Europe and the U.S. and is pending approval in Canada. 

He has also developed cell lines and mice engineered for the study of gut hormones. He makes these cell lines and mice freely available to academic researchers worldwide and licenses them to researchers in industry.

U of T benefits directly from Drucker’s success. The university’s approach to inventions and commercialization includes the sharing of revenues with the institution. In some cases – and Drucker has been one over the years – the revenue is directed to the Connaught Fund, a special U of T endowment dedicated to the support of research and innovation. Connaught awarded Drucker a New Staff Grant in 1987 to study the molecular biology of glucagon gene expression.

In the 25 years since Drucker’s initial discovery, the accolades have rolled in. They include the American Diabetes Association’s Banting Medal for Scientific Achievement, Japan’s Manpei Suzuki International Prize for Diabetes research and election to the Royal Society in London.

But, he says, despite his impressive record, he never sets out to commercialize his findings.

“We study basic mechanisms of hormone action. We do not set out initially to design our experiments with a view towards discovering an invention. We do the science, we hope that we ask good questions and we hope that our findings are novel and of interest.”

But, he says the key is in the mindset, in doing good science and being open to whatever emerges in the lab.

“When we make observations or discoveries, we always have a little light on that says, beyond the pure joy and satisfaction of understanding how this works, might this be relevant to treatment of human disease, and might this have commercialization potential? Keeping that light on is part of what we want to do.”

“Keeping the light on” is something we could do a much better job of, he says. “In Canada, we have fantastic basic science. We lag behind in commercialization.” 

Statistics bear this out. In a recent World Economic Forum report, Canada fell from its spot as the 12th most innovative country in the world in 2010 to 25th in 2014. And, according to the Conference Board of Canada, “Countries that are more innovative are passing Canada on measures such as income per capita, productivity and the quality of social programs.”

How help close the innovation gap? Drucker has a few thoughts on the matter. 

First, support basic science. 

“If you say, ‘We’re only interested in work that has commercialization potential,’ you’re likely to miss 95 per cent of the key basic science discoveries, which at the time they’re made, may not have immediately obvious commercialization potential. Understanding at a very basic level how things work underlies the commercializing of subsequent more applied applications in the vast majority of instances. So neglecting basic sciences, or attempting to redirect funding away from basic science toward work that clearly has an obvious commercialization flavour, is a long-term recipe for failure.”

Second, reward commercialization.

This means, he says, that we need both regulatory change, such as tax regimes more favourable to commercialization revenue, and culture change within institutions. 

“We can do a better job educating and rewarding people involved in commercialization. In many parts of the academic enterprise, it’s either passively or almost actively discouraged to interact with companies or to partake in commercial activity.”

Finally, embrace failure.

“We have had discoveries where although the science turned out to be correct, the commercialization potential never materialized. Inventors and scientists shouldn’t feel that every single patent they file has to be a home run. You need to file patents and protect your discoveries. Sometimes these will be commercializable and have great value, but many times they won’t. And there’s no way to predict it. There shouldn’t be any stigma attached to failure.”