Svetlana Mojsov, chemist: ‘I don’t know if they erased me from the history of Ozempic for being a woman’

The scientist — ignored in previous award ceremonies — has won the Princess of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research, for her role in the revolution of medications being used to treat obesity and diabetes

Svetlana Mojsov
American biochemist Svetlana Mojsov.Chris Taggart (Universidad Rockefeller)
Manuel Ansede

Millions of people receive best-selling drugs to treat obesity or diabetes. One of these is Ozempic, a drug manufactured by the Danish company Novo Nordisk. Since it was authorized for sale in 2018, it has generated global expectations unlike anything since the release of Viagra. American chemist Svetlana Mojsov — who was born 77 years ago in Skopje (in the former Yugoslavia, now North Macedonia) — led some of the first research behind this drug in the 1980s. Mojsov discovered the active sequence of an intestinal hormone — GLP-1 — which stimulates the pancreas to release more insulin when blood sugar is high. This discovery made it possible for Novo Nordisk to develop Ozempic and for other pharmaceutical companies to create similar medications. Today, this market moves billions of dollars each year, but Mojsov’s name was erased from history.

Three other scientists have since won awards for the discovery of the GLP-1 hormone: Joel Habener and Daniel Drucker — from the United States — and Jens Juul Holst, of Denmark. They also had valuable roles in the research. This past Wednesday, the Princess of Asturias Foundation in Spain announced that it was once again awarding the three men, but this time, Svetlana Mojsov of Rockefeller University would be added to the list, as would the American doctor Jeffrey M. Friedman, who, in 1994, discovered leptin, another hormone that regulates appetite.

After decades without acknowledgement, Mojsov celebrates her recent prize in a telephone interview with EL PAÍS. She has been reminded of her essential role in one of the medical revolutions of the 21st century.

Question. You helped discover the hormone GLP-1. Why has this been erased from history?

Answer. I really don’t know. It’s a question I always asked myself and I don’t have an answer. But now, I’m very happy. There were many articles in scientific journals that misrepresented or minimized my work. I wrote them letters to correct that information. The first I reached out to was [the peer-reviewed scientific journal] Cell. They published a correction immediately, after just two months. I also asked Nature for a correction; they also published it in September [of 2023]. I’m surprised no one noticed this, until a journalist from Science magazine discovered my story and wrote an article. So, I’m grateful to science journalists!

Q. Do you think this erasure of history has anything to do with you being a woman, while the other three researchers are men?

A. I always get asked this question and I don’t think I know. Maybe. I never felt that being a woman was an obstacle to achieving professional success [in my field]. When I came to Rockefeller University, I never felt that way. Both Bruce Merrifield — who directed my doctoral thesis — and Ralph Steinman, in whose department I worked for 20 years, supported women scientists (both later won the Nobel Prize). They supported me a lot, so I don’t know. I really don’t know. I say this honestly. But I also have to say that many women have written to me telling me that they identify with my story. There seems to be a certain percentage of women who feel that their contributions are minimized by men.

Q. In 1996, you learned that the patents for the GLP-1 receptor had been granted to Joel Habener of Massachusetts General Hospital. He was credited as the sole discoverer. How did you feel in that moment?

A. I was very surprised, but I didn’t get angry. I was just surprised by that omission. The only way to try to correct that was to work with a law firm, but even then, it took 10 years. People asked me if I did it for money, but really, that wasn’t it. I already knew that Novo Nordisk was working on it and was confident that GLP-1 would become a new drug in the future, but it never crossed my mind that it would make so much money. These drugs weren’t typically bestsellers, so it wasn’t a financial issue. In fact, the patents [related to the hormone] didn’t make much money, because the first authorized drug — liraglutide, or Victoza — was launched in 2010 and the patent expired in 2012. So, at the beginning, there were only two years of exploitation rights. [This was] a time that had nothing to do with what’s happening now.

Q. This year, Novo Nordisk is expected to have around $24 billion in sales for its two main drugs: Ozempic and Wegovy. Both mimic the activity of GLP-1. You don’t get a percentage?

A. No, no, nothing, nothing. The truth is that I didn’t get into science to make money: I just wanted to make some important discovery. And I accomplished my goal, so I’m very happy. If I had wanted to make money, I would have dedicated myself to finance.

Q. In October, you will travel to Spain for the awards ceremony in Oviedo. Joel Habener will be there. What’s your relationship like?

A. We haven’t spoken in 30 years. We have no relationship. Each of us went our own way. We’ll see how it goes.

Q. Would Ozempic exist without the pioneering work of Svetlana Mojsov?

A. The answer isn’t “yes” or “no.” I discovered the active sequence of GLP-1, but this active form — GLP-1 (7-37) — wasn’t very stable. At Novo Nordisk, they took this active sequence and made it more stable in the blood. First, we had liraglutide, or Victoza, which was injected once a day. And now, we have Ozempic, which is even more stable. Novo Nordisk’s contribution was very important and [the company] must be given credit. I think this needs to be seen as a collaborative effort.

Q. For the Nobel Prize, a maximum of three laureates may be selected per award. This year, the Princess of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research has been given to five people. Which two would you remove for the Nobel?

A. I don’t think about the Nobel Prize, or any prizes. That question should be asked of the Karolinska Institute (which awards the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine).

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