U of T Professors and Grad Take Three Manning Awards
Canada’s Manning Foundation has honoured three members of the University of Toronto community with its prestigious Innovation Awards, which recognize technological innovations across all sectors of the economy, and which have improved the human experience.
Professor Daniel Drucker will receive the Principal Award, which comes with $100,000, for his discovery and development of glucagon-like peptide 2 (GLP-2) for short bowel syndrome. Professor Kamran Khan and Dr. Morgan Wyatt will each receive a $10,000 Innovation Award, for their work on a web-based app to track infectious disease risk and a paper-based compost bin for organic waste, respectively.
“It’s a nice recognition of the GLP-2 story,” says Drucker, who is a professor of Medicine, and Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology, at U of T. “I was nominated four years ago, but there wasn’t as much evidence of our drug’s impact in the marketplace then. So it’s nice to meet this award’s standards for commercial success now.”
Drucker first discovered the GLP-2 protein has a powerfully restorative effect on the intestines of small animals in 1995. A drug based on that discovery, called teduglutide, became available for human use in 2012; it hit the market in Canada in 2015 under the name Revestive.
“It’s really the only approved chronic therapy for short bowel syndrome,” says Drucker, who is also a senior scientist at Sinai Health System’s Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute. “Health care providers are becoming more comfortable with it, but what’s really cool is that some patients who respond well to it are able to come off intravenous feeding completely.”
Patients with short bowel syndrome typically have had a portion of their intestine removed, often for treatment of Crohn’s disease, cancer or other conditions, and they can require intravenous nutrition daily or several times a week. This nutrition regimen limits their ability to travel, socialize and work. But up to 20 per cent of people who take the new drug require no intravenous nutrition, and many others see reductions in the number of regular intravenous sessions they need.
The treatment works by stimulating regrowth of the bowel lining and enhancing the absorption of nutrients — actions that Drucker says seem tailor-made for short bowel syndrome but which were entirely the result of curiosity-driven research. “This was a basic science discovery,” he says. “No one planned it, there was no consortium involved. We stumbled on a discovery that led to an ‘aha’ moment, and that’s had a big impact later on.”
Tracking the Spread of Infectious Diseases
The Manning Foundation, in honour of other research that has had broad impact through commercialization, also recognized Professor Kamran Khan for his role in BlueDot. The Toronto-based company has pioneered digital technologies that leverage big data and artificial intelligence to track and predict the global spread of dangerous infectious diseases.
Khan first got the idea for what later became BlueDot in 2003, after he completed training in infectious diseases and public health the U.S. and saw the havoc that SARS wreaked on Toronto when he returned to the city. “I had never seen anything like it,” says Khan, who is an associate professor in the Department of Medicine and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at U of T. “Frontline health care workers were getting infected, over 25,000 people were quarantined, and there was a massive financial impact after WHO recommended against travel to Toronto. It was an eye opening experience to witness a tiny virus cripple a major city.”
Khan began to study ways that countries could better anticipate the emergence and global spread of dangerous infectious diseases like SARS, but he soon realized that traditional ways of disseminating knowledge in academia were too slow to keep pace with a rapidly spreading outbreak. “I felt there was a gap, and it wasn’t clear how it would be addressed through government or academia,” says Khan, who is also a scientist at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Michael’s Hospital.
The answer turned out to be private enterprise — a path Khan says he didn’t envision during years of academic research, but which has enabled BlueDot to harness big data, advanced analytics, and web and mobile technologies to support governments, healthcare organizations and businesses around the world.
BlueDot now has over 40 employees with an eclectic mix of backgrounds, who mine insights from billions of pieces of diverse data from worldwide passenger flight itineraries and real-time meteorological conditions derived from satellites. Increasingly, BlueDot uses artificial intelligence to find patterns in even larger amounts of unstructured data, from blogs, newspapers and the growing expanse of online information.
And Khan is excited about the future. “Digital technologies are transforming our ability to rapidly convert data into insights and to spread those insights around the world,” he says. “Data sciences and technologies are advancing so quickly that I suspect five years from now, we will look back on what we’ve accomplished today and see it as child’s play.”
A Greenlid for Organic Waste
The Manning Foundation also honoured Dr. Morgan Wyatt with an Innovation Award, for his development of the Greenlid, a lead-proof, compostable compost bin made from recycled cardboard. Wyatt is the CEO of Greenlid Envirosciences, which has sold more than 3 million bins across North America. He completed an Honours Bachelor of Science in Pharmaceutical Chemistry at U of T before doing a PhD at McMaster University and founding Greenlid.
Wyatt, Khan and Drucker will receive their awards on October 24 at a ceremony in Toronto.
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