Jeffrey Gordon, MD, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who is often referred to as the “father of microbiome research,” is the recipient of the 2024 Mechthild Esser Nemmers Prize in Medical Science at Northwestern University.
The Mechthild Esser Nemmers Prize in Medical Science, which carries a $350,000 stipend, is given to a physician-scientist whose body of research exhibits outstanding achievement in their discipline as demonstrated by works of lasting significance. Gordon was selected by a jury of distinguished scientists from across the country.
Gordon, who is the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor and Director of The Edison Family Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has led research which has transformed the understanding of human health and how it is shaped by the gut microbiome.
“I’m very humbled by this award,” Gordon said. “It’s wonderful in terms of recognition of the work of the magnificent people that I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from and be with, but also in terms of the interest in this field and an endorsement of the potential it offers.”
In connection with this award, Gordon will visit campus to meet with students and faculty and deliver a public lecture on September 30th.
“Jeff is a pioneering physician-scientist of immense accomplishment whose discoveries have revolutionized the way we think about complex environments like the gut microbiome,” said Eric G. Neilson, MD, vice president for Medical Affairs and Lewis Landsberg Dean. “We are honored to have him receive the Nemmers Prize in Medical Science, which recognizes his profound contributions to improving the health of humankind.”
Uncovering Mysteries of the Microbiome
By utilizing interdisciplinary approaches for understanding how the gut microbiome contributes to disease and health conditions, Gordon’s research has founded a widely-adopted paradigm for establishing causal relationships between microbiome structure and function and health status, identifying therapeutic targets in the microbiome, and for developing ways to alter microbiome properties.
Gordon’s groundbreaking work in childhood undernutrition led to the discovery of “age-discriminatory” bacterial strains whose changes in representation in healthy infants and children define a shared normal gut microbiota development taking place largely during the first two years of life.
In following cohorts of children born in low- and middle-income countries, Gordon discovered that infants and children with moderate and severe malnutrition have impaired gut microbiota development that is not repaired with current nutritional interventions.
By transplanting microbiota from these children and their healthy counterparts into germ-free mice, Gordon identified bacterial strains that play important roles in various facets of healthy postnatal growth and development. Gordon then used these animal models, colonized with the gut microbial communities of the very population of children that his team wanted to treat, to develop microbiota-directed complementary food prototypes designed to repair their damaged microbiota. This repair involved changing the representation and augmenting the expressed beneficial functions of bacterial strains that they found to be connected to healthy growth.
A randomized controlled feeding study of 12-18-month-old Bangladeshi children with malnutrition found that one of Gordon’s food prototypes led to microbiota repair and significantly greater rates of growth compared to currently available treatments.
Gordon stressed that these accomplishments would not have been possible without his colleagues and lab members.
“Helping to support an environment where talented young people representing different disciplines can come together and, with courage, curiosity, kindness, generosity and humility, share their ideas, learn together and innovate to solve problems, has been one of the greatest privileges and pleasures of my life,” he said.
A member of the National Academy of Science since 2001, Gordon’s work has been recognized with numerous awards, including most recently the David and Beatrix Hamburg Award for Advances in Biomedical Research and Clinical Medicine from National Academy of Medicine, the Princess of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research, and the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research.
Gordon received his MD from the University of Chicago, completed his clinical training in internal medicine and gastroenterology at Washington University in St. Louis and was a research associate at the Laboratory of Biochemistry at the National Cancer Institute. Previously, he completed his bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College.
Gordon said he hopes the recognition of the importance of microbiota will inspire others to think more deeply about their connection to the diversity of life on earth – and within their own bodies.
“We live in a very inspiring yet complex, dynamic and defining time in human history. We are faced with the challenge of whether we as a species have evolved sufficiently – biologically, socially and psychologically – so that we can live together in ways that are mutually respectful, fulfilling, peaceful and that allow each person to achieve her or his full potential. Much like the microbes that comprise our healthy microbial communities, we need to come together to cooperate and collaborate in a sustained fashion.”
About the Nemmers Prizes
One of five Nemmers Prizes awarded by the University, the Mechthild Esser Nemmers Prize in Medical Science is made possible by a generous gift by the late Erwin Esser Nemmers and the late Frederic Esser Nemmers. It is the fourth Nemmers Prize to be established by Northwestern University and joins the Erwin Plein Nemmers Prize in Economics, the Frederic Esser Nemmers Prize in Mathematics, the Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition and the Nemmers Prize in Earth Sciences, established in 2016. The awards are given every other year.
In 2016, the inaugural award was presented to Huda Zoghbi, MD, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and professor at Baylor College of Medicine, whose research has focused on Rett syndrome and other neurological disorders.
Stuart H. Orkin, MD, an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Boston Children’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, whose research relates to blood cell development and the genetic basis of blood disorders, received the award in 2018.
Jeremy Nathans, MD, PhD, an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, known for his landmark discoveries into the molecular mechanisms of visual system development, function and disease, was the recipient of the 2022 prize.
Read more about Nathans and the Mechthild Esser Nemmers Prize in Medical Science at feinberg.northwestern.edu/nemmers.