Mass General researcher and donor Joel Habener, MD, advances diabetes research and the careers of promising young investigators.

Joel Habener, MD, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Laboratory of Molecular Endocrinology, is on the brink of yet another pioneering discovery related to diabetes. His latest research has the potential to produce innovative new ways to control diabetes and reduce body weight by “melting” fat away.

“It’s clear that we need flexible funding for scientists early in their career, a time when it can be difficult to get research grants.”

“If this works in humans, it would be as if you take a pill and eat what you want and it will burn fat away,” Dr. Habener says. The possibility has generated a great deal of excitement, and he is working with collaborators to start clinical testing this year.

As a donor, Dr. Habener has also made a commitment to invest in the next generation of endocrinologists. Endocrinology is the branch of medicine that deals with glands, the hormones they secrete and diseases like diabetes. Through their generosity, Dr. Habener and his wife, Ann, have established the John T. Potts Jr. MD Early Career Development Fund in Endocrinology to help young physicians advance their research careers.

Helping Young Researchers

Given the numbers affected, the importance of Dr. Habener’s work cannot be overstated. More than 29 million Americans have diabetes and more than one-third of all Americans are obese. Being overweight affects the body’s response to insulin and is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes.

The fund honors John Potts, Jr., MD, former chair of the MGH Department of Medicine.
The fund honors John Potts, Jr., MD, former chair of the MGH Department of Medicine.

Yet even as he modestly explains his work that could benefit millions of patients with diabetes and obesity, Dr. Habener is thinking about supporting future generations of researchers in his field.

“It’s clear that we need flexible funding for scientists early in their career, a time when it can be difficult to get research grants,” he points out. Dr. Habener established the fund in honor of his mentor, John Potts, Jr., MD, former chair of the MGH Department of Medicine, who continues to investigate the actions of parathyroid hormone at the Endocrine Unit.

Dr. Potts was recruited from the National Institutes of Health in 1968 as chief of Mass General’s Endocrine Unit. “John is the most selfless individual I’ve ever encountered and was of enormous help to me in my professional development,” says Dr. Habener, who served as one of Dr. Pott’s first fellows.

Breakthroughs in Diabetes

It didn’t take long for Dr. Habener to find his research passion, studying genes and hormones mainly in the pancreas. Since Dr. Habener came to Mass General 45 years ago as a fellow in Dr. Potts’ lab, he has built one discovery upon another. These discoveries have created new fields of inquiry and pointed to alternative ways to treat diabetes and obesity.

Thirty years ago, Dr. Habener discovered a hormone (GLP-1) in the pancreas that stimulates cells there to produce insulin. This breakthrough is important because people with diabetes can’t produce or respond normally to insulin. To keep blood glucose levels in check, insulin is necessary. Otherwise, over years, high levels of glucose damage the eyes, kidneys, heart and blood vessels.

Joel Habener, MD, has built one discovery upon another at Mass General.
Joel Habener, MD, has built one discovery upon another at Mass General.

That work on GLP-1 in Dr. Habener’s laboratory contributed to the development of a new treatment for type 2 diabetes: an injectable once-a-day blockbuster drug called Victoza (liraglutide).

Burning Away Body Fat

Then 15 years ago, Dr. Habener and his colleagues discovered the existence of multipotent stem-like cells in the pancreas, which are triggered by GLP-1 to become insulin-producing cells. In the future, these findings could help those with type 1 diabetes, whose immune systems have destroyed their insulin-producing cells.

GLP-1, it seems, is the gift that keeps on giving. By continuing to study its signaling pathways in the pancreas for the past five years, Dr. Habener and his colleagues found another peptide (a small protein) in the pancreas that together with GLP-1 can coax injured cells that have stopped making insulin to make it again. Scientists are currently studying this new avenue of treatment.

“Physicians belong in a special category of donors. They understand the challenge it is to find funding for innovation.”

And now it’s another related peptide that essentially revs up the body’s metabolism to burn more calories. His research team has demonstrated in obese mice that the GLP-1-5 peptide not only improves insulin action, it literally burns away body fat.

Advancing Research in Diabetes and Obesity

Tackling the diabetes epidemic is top priority for Katrina Armstrong, MD, MGH chief of Medicine. “We couldn’t be more grateful to Dr. Habener for his brilliant work and for giving back,” she says. “Physicians belong in a special category of donors. They understand the challenge it is to find funding for innovation.”

For more than four decades, Dr. Habener has made enormous contributions to diverse areas of endocrinology. “The generous gift that established this fund,” says Henry Kronenberg, MD, chief of MGH Endocrine, “will assure that the same qualities that he has imparted to generations of Mass General trainees will continue to enrich the experience of trainees in the future.”

To make a gift to the John T. Potts, Jr, MD Early Career Development Fund in Endocrinology, please contact us.